While many were disappointed that the annual bacchanal of music, film, and technology known as SXSW was again going to have to be virtual this year, some took the need for digital participation as a challenge, not an unfortunate alternative. Northern Expo decided its showcase wouldn’t just highlight four Norwegian music acts playing together, the way a live show would have unfolded; instead, it decided to take the opportunity to plunge viewers into not just the sounds, but the deeply immersive visual experience, of showcasing artists from the northernmost parts of the country. And the resulting 20-minute short is a fascinating achievement, unlike anything else shown at the fest this year—or any year, most likely. (You can view the film below, exclusively on The A.V. Club.)
Director Carl Christian Lein Størmer (acclaimed snowboarding documentary There’s Always Next Season) was trying to conceptualize a way to keep the project interesting, no matter the final collection of musicians participating, when he hit upon the idea of momentum. As he tells The A.V. Club, “I figured, why not just keep physically moving throughout the entire thing? Heading towards something. Onward and upward.” That movement occurs in the city of Tromsø, one of the most northern cultural hubs in the country, well above the arctic circle; the camera begins traveling into the heart of downtown, never stopping as it travels through streets, taxis, and cable cars, before finally arriving at the top of a mountain overlooking the city. All along the way, viewers are treated to the music of four genre-hopping Norwegian acts: the tradition-inspired modernist art collective OZAS, rapper Oter, folk-pop duo I See Rivers, and indelible metal band Heave Blood And Die.
After selecting the artists (or, in the case of Oter, convincing him to participate: “Well, [Størmer] pretty much forced me to partake. I had no interest in it myself,” says the rapper, though he quickly adds he “would never have done it with any other director,” feeling confident the results “present my music and our city in a respectful way.”), there was almost no communication between musicians and director prior to actual shooting. Each band knew what they would be doing, of course, but there were a few concerns—such as the fact that I See Rivers, who would be performing in a cable car moving up the side of the mountain, have a fear of heights. “Neither of us are very big on heights, so the actual experience of performing while in a cable car so many meters above ground was a bit daunting!” the band’s Lill Scheie explains. Commitment to the project, however, made them determined to not let fears weigh upon the shoot. “I didn’t even know that the I See Rivers girls were scared of heights until after the thing was over, haha,” Størmer says.
The results are astonishing—a singular experience that highlights the variety of Northern Norway’s music scene while also delivering an engaging visual experience you’d be hard-pressed to top. Happily, everyone involved is quite pleased with the outcome (OZAS emphasize that “it felt good to be able to fill Tromsø’s streets with live music, streets that have almost been empty the last year due to the pandemic,” while Heave Blood And Die call performing on the top of the cable cars “a dream,” while reassuring those clocking the arctic setting that “It was cold, of course, but not as cold as it looks!”). And the cross-section of music is excellent, which may be a direct result of Størmer’s involvement: “My only real concern was to keep the showcase free of boring, mainstream radio muzak bullshit.”
He succeeded. OZAS kicks things off with an engaging, street-bound performance, with a song that gains in meaning when you realize the group is singing in Northern Saami, which, as the band notes, is “a language that is [according to UNESCO] on the list of definitely endangered languages.” From there, the camera joins Oter as he enters a cab to deliver his intimate, hypnotic hip-hop track, while they travel in real time to the base of the Tromsø cable cars, at which point you travel in and up with the music of I See Rivers. (For the record, you’d never know they were terrified of looking down.) And it all ends atop it all with the cathartic noise of Heave Blood And Die, who deliver a speaker-rattling conclusion (and whose album Post People is one of the more exciting releases of 2021 thus far). The showcase will be available on SXSW’s YouTube channel starting April 19, but for now you can enjoy it exclusively here.