House music DJs will tell you playing to the crowd is all about the journey. The average set length is ninety minutes, like a feature film. In the same principle as filmmaking, you want the audience to have some kind of self-discovery. Anyone can stand up there and play two hours of solid hits (and believe me many do), but as with a documentary you want to subtly reveal the world of the story to the audience with visual indicators, suspenseful cuts, and cliff-hangers. The only way to do this of course without possessing some psychic ability is to be able to read the crowd in an instant. Acting on impulse is something I’m sure any documentarian can relate to. A DJ will consider and plan a set for the night but their interactions with the crowd can change this in a house beat (excuse the pun). A self-shooting filmmaker will turn up on location with a plan for the day, but who can predict human nature in any moment?
The Retrospective Track
I am one of those people whose parents would describe me as a cartoon character to their friends, ‘she came out of the womb dancing.’ As bizarre as this analogy has always sounded to me, music is one of the only constants in my life, a best friend offering me safety, escapism, opportunity, and passion. For me, a walk around the supermarket has a soundtrack whirling around in my mind which would be at home in the opening credits of a retro biopic about a struggling musician. Perhaps it was no surprise then to those who know me that my adult life would begin with a career in the music industry.
Raised in a family of blues pianists and rock musicians maybe this is structured in my DNA, or maybe this has over time become culturally imprinted. Sweet sixteen for me was not shopping trips to the mall with friends sharing a strawberry milkshake, nope, sixteen for me was every weekend from noon until night hanging out in the cramped attic bedroom of a four-story run-down Victorian townhouse inhabited by several other aspiring DJs or broke musicians, depending on your stance, and a bottle of flat vodka and cola. For hours I waited patiently and listened intently until it was my turn to take to the decks and play the same two 12” vinyl tracks back and forth for an hour until those four-to-the-floor beats matched seamlessly, flowing one 1990’s house track into the next. A partially raised eyebrow from any one of those guys waiting in line was the subtle acknowledgement of my achievement, and also a definite hint to make way for the next future spinner.
A DJ career followed, playing gigs across the UK house music landscape. Perhaps those anxious glances of acceptance across the smoke-filled attic at such a young age produced an inherent ability in me to be able to read a crowd, second-guessing their thoughts by the faintest of facial reactions, whilst also challenging my senses by having to simultaneously mix two pieces of music without missing a beat….This was fun for me by the way…..some of the best fun I’ve had in my life!
Skip forward to today, and sure enough, as if imprinted in my DNA, the pattern restarts; Weekends for me in my forties are not meeting friends for coffee at the local delicatessen, nope, a Saturday for me at forty is driving the UK house music landscape, this time my record box replaced by my camera trolley, spending hours in haze filled night-time venues.
One year into a fresh new career in filmmaking, again perhaps no surprise to my nearest and dearest, my portfolio to date is a range of music videos, music-themed fiction and most recently, a feature documentary about house music, which five months in I already see as one of the greatest achievements in my working life, a project that sixteen-year-old me would’ve seen as my dream job. The advice from my lecturers, peers and mentors so far has been consistent in guiding me toward the mantra of ‘create what you know.’ When the opportunity arose for me to self-produce and direct a film about some of my most loved house music artists, I felt I had once again found my thing. Ecstatically spellbound and slightly out of my depth but grateful for the faith in me the subjects and contributors have shown. The question of the hour though is; what is it that these established musicians have registered in me that has given them the faith to trust a brand-new documentary filmmaker, still studying at university with a very modest portfolio in telling their story? There is something embedded in my history, hidden in plain sight that is seemingly the most crucial and pertinent point in my becoming a more sensitised documentary filmmaker.
If anyone asked me up until I started writing this blog, why make this film? I would’ve answered by explaining that my love for music and film and my creativity have powered my drive into two careers in the arts. I would’ve told you about how forming ideas and realising them for others to consume stories in the world of house music was everything to me, and I would’ve said something about pushing boundaries and expression…… I of course would’ve been right; valuable aspects of my career and lifestyle choices.
My crescendo though, that little voice slowly building, those hidden skills that have elevated me as a documentary filmmaker in such quick succession have come not from my technical and artistic ability but a very personal and humanistic place. The magic formula in my journey to finding the story was crafted many years ago in that smoky little attic;
Reading the crowd captures the essence of the story!
The sensitivity I developed as a very young woman being watched intently whilst learning my craft, has embedded some little triggers into my psyche which allow me to instinctively make the right moves when filming live.
This has allowed me to capture some of the most poignant moments in interviews, outrageous footage when filming crowds and celebratory moments of real life on film. My instinct kicks in just as it did when those eyebrows raised, and my body follows, moving the camera with a power from within that has very little to do with action or planning and more about reaction. If you are reading this as a filmmaker or a DJ, take some time to find the feeling inside of you that triggers this and what will follow is a genuine depiction of your style powered by a feeling of what the people in the world of the story or audience demands. This is so personal, leading back to that age-old advice of ‘creating what you know.’ May the results work towards giving you your unique voice and style. This, I am rapidly realising is as essential to me if not more so, as my technical know-how and creative ability. Take the time to feel the music, read the crowd.
Sarah Michelle Durrant is a Writer/Director/Producer and the sole owner of Glam
Rock Films. Her current projects include music documentaries and videos for
artists including K Klass, The Astras, The Institutes, Courthouse and DJ Seb
She is currently in the development stage of adapting the novel 'Cola Boy' for the
contact: @sarahmichelleglamrock; email@example.com
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De Montfort University