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CAN and me

Directors: Michael P Aust, Tessa Knapp (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

A concert, back in the day when concerts were filmed in black and white. No-one is dancing. Instead, groups of earnest-looking young men, and the occasional earnest looking young woman, stare at the band, quizzically.

We move quickly on to Provence, where Irmin Schmidt has been living for over 40 years. By the film’s title, you might think that Schmidt was one of the earnest young man in the crowd. In fact he was part of the band. Now 85, he looks 20 years younger, and has the air of a liberal professor, dressed usually with a smart jacket, but occasionally in leather. Schmidt is a founder member of the group Can, who kick started the movement which was to be called Krautrock.

Schmidt’s reflections on his childhood are fascinating. Born in 1937, he vividly remembers playing in bomb craters caused by British bombers. He calls his father “a lovely man, who was also a Nazi and an antisemite.” This was a contradiction which he struggled to reconcile. At school – before he left a year before his Abitur (“A”-levels) – he used the school newspaper to name and shame his teachers for what they did before 1945.

At the age of 14, Schmidt sold his electric train set, and bought a record player and 2 records – something by Schubert and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The conditions out of which rock and roll sprung may have been in the air, but Schmidt has never let himself be constrained by one particular genre. As he says, we have 700 years of modern music, and it is his job to reflect this in his entirety. On more than one occasion, he says that he would have loved to be a conductor.

Despite his minimal success at school, Schmidt found himself studying music under Karlheinz Stockhausen. A move to New York introduced him to the young composers who were pushing the boundaries of classical music – people like LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, and John Cale, about to swap one form of avant garde music for another, when he helped form the Velvet Underground. This experimentational approach to music would continue to accompany Schmidt’s music.

In 1968, Schmidt and fellow student Holgar Czukay formed the band Can. To fit the anarchist ideology which was prevalent in their circles, Can had no leader, and it could be argued that their lead instrument was Jaki Liebezeit’s drums. We see documentary footage of former band members. In each case, the captions saying who they are do not mention which instrument they play, preferring to describe each one as “composer”.

The band was formed with singer, Malcolm Mooney, a Black US-American artist. Mooney was worried about being drafted for the Vietnam war, and returned to the States after a couple of years. After his departure, the band wasn’t sure that they wanted another vocalist, until they bumped into Japanese busker Damo Suzuki in Munich. In an act which is fitting of the band’s unorganised approach to selling their music, they asked him to sing at that evening’s gig.

Can continued for 10 years, and here make the claim that they were the original punk band. You can see what they’re getting at, with their radical politics and refusal to follow the rules, but I don’t think its a coincidence that the band split in the late 1970s. Can may have been rebellious, but they were swept aside by the musical revolution which said that all you need is three chords and a band. Mainly consisting of people who’d studied music, Can were just too good to be punks.

This is a film which is more about Schmidt (and his wife, and band manager by default Hildegart) than the band. So the second half of the film tells us about work writing film scored for Wim Wenders and others, the opera that he wrote based on Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast, and the experimental music that he continued to make. I’m not sure if it’s my musical taste, or the relative lack of a sense of danger, but I felt less engaged in this part of the film.

Then, out of the blue, a renewed interest grew in Can’s music, both from the Dance and Classical scenes. Although the band had traditionally been more popular in Britain and France than in their home country, suddenly German techno artists started sampling their music. And a composer wrote a symphony using Schmidt’s music. This concluded in a scene that we see of Schmidt taking the podium, realising his old dream of conducting an orchestra.

The film is so focussed on Schmidt that it lives or dies on his personality. And, fortunately, the affable old man is compelling from start to end. There’s a certain poetry in his quiet utterances, like when says that the most important sound is silence. You hang on his anecdotes. Apparently the film was made as a response to the 2017 deaths of original band members Czukay and Liebezeit, so it feels to be announcing the end of something. But this something was worth having.

There are some things missing that I would have like to been addressed. What was Mooney’s reaction to the largely white scene, and why exactly did he return home? What did the others do after Can split up? It would also have been nice to have more footage of the band playing, but the story being told is from an era when such footage didn’t exist. So, there could have been more. But that’s all for a different film. Until then, we have this one, which is still worth seeing.

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