Sound Unseen has been a vital part of the Twin Cities alt-culture landscape ever since entrepreneurial curator-turned-organic farmer and freelance stonemason Nate Johnson planted it here in 2000. But I believe this is the first year that the festival of music and film has given its parties equal prominence on the bill. And this is a good thing. You don't have to be a fan of parties per se to be a fan of Sound Unseen, which is as much about the basic principles of fandom—how the celebration of music can help define and sustain communities—as it is about anything in particular (including movies about music). Festival director Gretchen Williams made her reputation as a party-thrower, and Sound Unseen '06—boasting nine days of live performances and music-related films (and parties!), held at a half-dozen local addresses—is clearly her biggest bash yet.
What's the occasion? Far as I can tell, Sound Unseen, in the venerable alt/punk tradition, seems to be raising a glass to its own existence on the local stage, its endurance against the odds, its stubborn perseverance within a climate that could be unwelcoming of the effort. Newly divorced from Minnesota Film Arts (and ready to play the field), the festival—programmed this year by ex-MFA staffer Emily Condon—embodies the old Oak Street spirit of iconoclastic exhibitionism, not least through movies that pay homage to lost worlds. The aptly named Old Joy, saluted by Amy Taubin here, is one of several Sound Unseen films whose remembrance of things past feels like a fleeting wish. The brief history of mid-'60s art-rockers the Monks reverberates in The Transatlantic Feedback (see Peter S. Scholtes's appreciation here), while the eternal question of what makes some music especially real is raised once again in three docs inspected by Lindsey Thomas here. (Reviews of still more fest films can be found on here; visit www.soundunseen.com for additional info.)
But nothing in Sound Unseen rattles the bones like First Avenue Hay Day, which nearly leaves this critic at a loss for words, so supernatural is its resurrection of the legendary venue's many ghosts. (The movie's one and only screening—visitation might be the better word—is the very first of the festival: Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at the Riverview. Only a medical emergency should prevent you from attending.)
Rock-doc as archaeological dig, First Avenue Hay Day pulls two hours of local concert footage from, literally, the basement of the titular club. Some 800 videotapes that the venue's Avenue Productions had shot for posterity between '85 and '92 and then placed in cold storage were entrusted in 2004 to the care of Minneapolis music video impresario Rick Fuller, who'd had his eye on this semi-secret stash for more than a decade. On his way out the door, as legend has it, former First Avenue manager Steve McClellan saw to it that this musty treasure trove would remain under loving supervision, and turned to Fuller, undoubtedly the ideal person for the job. Working to the last minute with editor James K. Lambert (the festival's print will be coming wet from the lab, digitally speaking), and with the participation of the 40-odd featured acts, Fuller has stitched together a suitably raw document of the period between the signing of Hüsker Dü to Warner Bros. and the year punk broke—whereupon the genre of Nirvana verily shattered local scenes like this one.
Hay Day has more goosebump-inducing highlights than a local rock historian could cover in a bound volume, so, in the film's own ephemeral, one-night-only spirit, I'll mention just this: The milky videotape image of rock boys straining to look bored while Babes in Toyland blow the roof off the playroom says as much as Nevermind about how yesterday's whatever is tomorrow's daydream—here today, thanks to Sound Unseen. Blink and it'll be gone again. —Rob Nelson, film editor, City Pages