At the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer, you’ll be able to watch movies such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and City of Lights with the Philadelphia Orchestra providing the live soundtrack. If you’re an indie rock fan, Skidmore College will do you one better. On Thursday, June 6, at the Arthur Zankel Music Center, the college will be screening Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Green‘s 2012 “live documentary,” The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, accompanied by the filmmaker’s own narration and prolific indie band Yo La Tengo, who penned the soundtrack, as part of the college’s annual John B. Moore Documentary Studies (MDOCS) Collaborative Documentary Forum. “These days you can watch almost any movie at any time on Netflix and iTunes, which is great,” says Green. “I’m all for that, but in some ways, I think it slightly diminishes the value of the experience.”
The live performance/screening caps off Skidmore’s four-day MDOCS Forum symposium (June 6-9), which is open to the public and concerns all things documentary filmmaking. The theme for this year’s event is “Humor: Laughing with Reality” and will feature workshops, screenings, discussions and live performances. Skidmore chose Green as one of its two keynote speakers (the other being comedienne and performance artist, Kristina Wong) and, in addition to the screening of Love Song, the symposium will also include a discussion with Green on June 7 about the making of the documentary and his use of humor in it. While Green admits that renowned American architect, author and philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller isn’t necessarily the first person that comes to mind when thinking about comedy, he says the documentary will contain some good, hearty laughs. “When an audience laughs together, there’s a certain way in which way they settle into the ride,” says Green. “And if you can get people to laugh early on, they’re with you.”
Skidmore’s performance of Love Song marks only one of a handful of occasions that Green and Yo La Tengo have performed the project together since it first premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) almost seven years ago. (They’ll only be staging it a few more times this year.) Green was originally approached about the project by a friend who worked at the museum. At the time, SFMOMA was planning an exhibit on Fuller, who, among many other accomplishments, popularized the geodesic dome in architecture (think: Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center) and served as the second president of Mensa from 1974-83. SFMOMA wanted a live cinematic piece exploring Fuller’s vision of creating social change through a design revolution, and Green seemed like a natural fit: He’d already produced a live documentary, entitled Utopia in Four Movements in 2010, and his 2004 film, The Weather Underground, had earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Condensing Fuller’s life into an hourlong documentary was no easy task. “All of Fuller’s papers are at Stanford, and I assumed it would be five boxes of files,” says Green. “It turned out that Fuller has one of the largest archives of any single person on the planet—it was a documentary filmmaker’s dream.” Green trawled through hundreds of thousands of archived items and hundreds of hours of footage to construct the visual and narrative components of the documentary. As for the music, Green realized that there was a “melancholic sweetness” to Fuller’s life and accomplishments and to achieve that tenor, he reached out to a longtime favorite band of his, Yo La Tengo. “I feel really lucky to just sit through a lot of the piece [while I’m narrating] and hear Yo La Tengo playing their music,” says Green. “It’s always great fun to do.” The trio, which consists of Ira Kaplan (guitar, piano and vocals), Georgia Hubley (drums, piano and vocals) and James McNew (bass and vocals), had written film scores before, but playing a soundtrack live as part of a documentary was a first for them. “We were really into the idea of what he wanted to do—the live presentation of it,” says McNew. “It was like being in the pit of the orchestra for an Off-Broadway show. It definitely felt like a different way of composing for us.”
Green and Yo La Tengo’s schedules are so busy these days that they rarely get the chance to perform Love Song together. (Next week, Green will be in Mexico City performing another one of his live documentaries, A Thousand Thoughts (2018), accompanied by the Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet; while the band will be headed off to play shows in South Korea, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.) So this will be a rare treat for pop culture fanatics. Plus, this is just one in a handful of performances this year of Love Song featuring Green and Yo La Tengo.