New Haven-based filmmaker Brendan Toller excels at making music documentaries that are about more than just the music. His first two feature films, I Need that Record! (2010) and Danny Says (2015), document the communities of artists, fans, record store owners, and journalists who live to discover new music and share the music they love. Without their voices, Toller’s movies contest, the story of music, and of punk rock in particular, is conspicuously incomplete.
Toller (pictured) came by WNHH’s “Deep Focus” to discuss making movies about music, the importance of preserving those spaces where we learn about new and interesting art, and the benefits and challenges of being a filmmaker in New Haven. Click on the audio player below or subscribe to the WNHH podcast on iTunes to listen to the full episode.
“I appreciate not being in an established city like New York City or Boston,” Toller said, reflecting on his move to New Haven after graduating with a filmmaking degree from Hampshire College in 2008. “Because New Haven’s so small, you can kind of make it your own. What they used to say about New York in the 70s was that you could dream in the bleakness, and I think some of that relates to New Haven. It’s not all bleak, of course, but if [what you need to be a filmmaker] is not already here, well, you can make it here.”
That do-it-yourself approach to making art is particularly resonant in the world of punk rock, which has served as the backdrop to both of Toller’s films to date. His first movie, I Need that Record!, features interviews with Thurston Moore, Ian Mackaye, Mike Watt, and many more in an attempt to articulate the cultural significance, and accelerating demise, of the independent record store. The movie focuses on former Connecticut havens like Danbury’s Trash American Style and Middletown’s Record Express to narrate a trend familiar at many levels of the American economy: the uprooting of community-based independent businesses due to sustained pressure from international chains and the ubiquitous presence of online retailers.
“Record stores are still vital community spaces where like-minded people can meet and discover different types of music,” Toller argued, explaining his inspiration to make the movie in the first place, as well as a justification for why they must continue to exist. “[They offer] a place where you can be physically within the music.”
His most recent feature, Danny Says, also turns its camera on a critical point of intersection for punk rock musicians and their audiences. In this case, the setting is New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the connector is a specific person: Danny Fields.
An openly gay Jewish man from Brooklyn who dropped out of Harvard Law School at 20, moved to Greenwich Village, and quickly became a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, Fields would go on to embody, as Toller said, “an incredible through-line [in the history of] alternative American music.” Closely involved with the Velvet Underground, Nico, and the Doors, as well as manager of the MC5, the Stooges, and the Ramones, Fields encouraged audiences and record companies alike to take a chance on music they might otherwise have dismissed as too radical, too unprofessional, too strange and different.
But independent of his facilitating and enabling many of the most important musicians of his generation, Fields is a wonder in and of himself: a smart, funny, resilient man who consistently resisted prevailing social norms in his pursuit to forge an identity for himself and his peers. “He has all these jobs like editor of 16 magazine, publicist for the Doors, first manager of the Ramones, discoverer of Iggy Pop, but that doesn’t define him at all,” Toller said. “He is himself. And he is a gift to the world just because he exists.”
Danny Says premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, played at the 2015 New Haven Documentary Film Festival, and has a number of upcoming screening dates, including at the IFC Center in New York City on Nov. 24.