A global musical project, the brainchild of two British musicians Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto, the first 1 Giant Leap album and film back in 2002 (reviewed here) was a genuinely revolutionary musical experience. Travelling across the world with a portable laptop as a recording studio, Catto and Bridgeman enlisted some of the finest pop, rock, traditional, folk, world and ethnic singers and musicians in places as diverse as Africa, India, Australia, the UK and USA, each new element building, harmonising, working off the layers of tracks already laid down. With such a diversity of musicians, musical styles and instruments, it was impossible to predict or anticipate how they would blend together, but the results were thrilling to behold, creating something musically unique.
But 1 Giant Leap wasn’t just a musical experiment to add to the CV of the various musicians involved - the creators had a deep underlying philosophy that went beyond the idea of music as a universal language, showing that while there is diversity in the multitude of cultures and beliefs throughout the world, there were also common basic qualities that make us all human. Following on from the album release, the first 1 Giant Leap developed these themes further, exploring those shared universal qualities in major themes like Love, Death, Sex, God and Happiness, underpinning it with the unifying force of the music they had created. In addition to the DV footage Catto and Bridgeman had made of the recording sessions, these themes were supported by travelogue images shot in the worldwide locations they had visited and by interviews they had conducted with notable authors, filmmakers, philosophers, spiritual leaders and celebrities on their travels. If at times the imagery, the spiritual, social and environmental concerns recalled films like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka (seemingly it is almost impossible not to reference these key works of environmentalism and spirituality in film) – the emphasis on music as a tool for mutual understanding and expression gave the whole 1 Giant Leap project a greater dimension, one far removed from the commercial concerns of just about everyone else caught up in the music industry. All of which takes the challenge of the traditionally difficult second album to another level entirely. When you’ve already gone global, where do you go next? Well, the world’s a big place...
The basic process remains the same on the second 1 Giant Leap project, Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto laying down the basic theme, rhythm and timing of a number of tracks which they then take with them across the world, the songs being built up as musicians from across the world add their contributions. In theory it sounds a simple enough concept but, as the first album testified, the potential is limitless, the combination of uncommon musicians, instruments and styles creating electrifying performances and unique results. Musically and conceptually, What About Me? takes the original idea one step further. The exploration of the African, Indian and Aboriginal rhythms that underpinned most of the first album are extended further here to include Brazilian Samba rhythms, string quartets, Bedouin musicians, Chinese rappers, singers from Mali and Senegal, Romany gypsies, El Salvador street poets, Japanese Shamizen players, Hawaiian guitarists, Gabon pygmy singers and Icelandic horse-hair violinists. And in addition to the musicians familiar in the west that took part in the last album - Michael Stipe, Eddi Reader, Baaba Maal, The Mahotelle Queens, Michael Franti and Maxi Jazz from Faithless – are added (among many others) Carlos Santana, Daniel Lanois, Alanis Morrisette, K.D. Lang, Steward Copeland and Speech from Arrested Development.
Remarkably, all the musicians involved, no matter how diverse their musical styles and ethnic backgrounds, all seem to be completely open to the idea of collaboration and improvisation, able to adjust their playing to suit the material. The results are neither a mish-mash of styles nor a softening into a bland, safe kind of generic World Music that some might expect. The unique qualities and musicianship of each individual contribution remains evident, but is rather given a new, unexpected dimension when heard in a new context, the musicians clearly inspired by what has been played before and pushed to be equally as creative and inventive.
Pulling it all together is no small task, and it’s a tribute to Bridgeman and Catto that they are also so willing to let the songs evolve naturally and take chances, improvising, experimenting and bringing together elements that on paper would seem improbable. This often takes the arrangements into directions that could never have been envisioned from the outset, and it’s often thrilling to see the incredible and unlikely turns that the songs are capable of taking over the course of their global evolution. The technology undoubtedly makes this process a lot easier than it was even back in 2002 when the first 1 Giant Leap album was made, but here again Bridgeman and Catto are able to take it much further with their laptop recording, capturing improvised routines from rappers on the streets of New York and Tiananmen Square and from a Amazonian percussionist right there on the Amazon itself, all of this taking away from the sterility of a recording studio and allowing for a liberating spontaneity and authenticity.
The brilliance of the music alone would fully justify the aims of the project (admirably supported by Simon Fuller as Executive Producer and by Channel 4), entirely validating the 1 Giant Leap ethos by showing how international and cultural diversity can be powerful creative force when used collaboratively. The project is however much greater than that, the creators taking the opportunity on their worldwide travels to interview influential authors, philosophers, religious leaders, celebrities and movie-stars on topics relevant to their theme of the unifying factors of being human. The topics are again weighty ones – Love and Need, Pain, Men & Women and Freedom to name but a few of the subjects covered – but this time the underlying unifying factors are taken back to their root source – the ego, and how it extends out and shapes the world we live in - hence the title What About Me?. Undertaking a journey from birth to death and beyond in its search for answers to the predicament of what it means to be human inevitably takes the subjects often into the realm of the spiritual, drawing from the teachings of religious leaders and preachers, but it also finds words of wisdom from Noam Chomsky, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Sir Bob Geldof, Stephen Fry. Billy Connolly and Frank Skinner (again to name but a few). Capturing such a wide spread of views and ideas prevents the subjects sinking into New Age self-help platitudes or Tuesdays with Morrie veneration of banal, self-evident truths given credence purely on the basis of a person being old. Those interviewed here – the film drawing most heavily from the wisdom and personalities of Eckhart Tolle and Bhagavan Das – have clearly thought deeply about such matters and have lived through them, and they have much insight and experience to impart thought-provoking, entertaining, inspirational and sometimes controversial views on the relevant subjects from child abuse to getting old.
There is plenty of intelligence, inspiration and brilliance evident then in both music and in the exploration of the themes through interviews, but the real genius of 1 Giant Leap – What About Me? lies in bringing them together. The extra features on the DVD consist of a seven-part TV series, (originally broadcast on Channel 4 in an unfavourable late-night midweek slot), which show how the whole project was put together, giving some idea of the scale and ambition of the project and a little indication of the numerous technical and logistic difficulties that had to be surmounted, but it gives scant indication of the undoubtedly difficult creative decisions that had to be made or the process in bringing them all together. Catto and Bridgeman here surpass the work achieved on the first film, moving further away from traditional structures, allowing the compositions to find their own length, adapting and changing as the song progresses and other musicians add their contribution, ebbing and flowing according to the tone of the spoken word and the mood of the subject matter, finding a greater balance and coherence between words, music and image. Whether your interest is in music, film or in subjects that are deeply relevant to the world we live in today, it’s this unique, inspired and creative use of all the media available to them that makes 1 Giant Leap – What About Me? a work of consummate craft and beauty.
1 Giant Leap – What About Me is released in the UK by 4DVD. It’s a 2-DVD set, Disc One containing the film and 12 additional explorations of the themes. Disc Two has the seven episodes of the TV series and additional extra features. Both discs are dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and the disc is Region 2 encoded.
Consisting entirely of original footage shot by the creators on their journey across the world, all the What About Me? film and behind-the-scenes footage was shot on High Definition Digital Video without the assistance of an extensive film crew. Inevitably the technical limitations are evident, but they are inherent within the constrictions of the documentary nature of the film. Having said that and allowing for a little bit of minor softness and motion blurring on occasions, the image looks quite spectacular, with no significant issues. The film itself uses a matted 2.35:1 aspect ratio, while the TV series shows many of the same images in full-frame 16:9, both anamorphically enhanced. I’m not sure on the reasoning behind the decision to go for the wider ratio on the film, as the image does appear to be composed for the full-frame widescreen and this results in some cropping of heads. However, the film is often edited to use multiple frames in order to show the varied musicians across the world all playing on the same track and spoken contributions, and undoubtedly the wider aspect ratio provides more space for such effects. As such, progressively encoded, the clear and colourful transfer looks exactly as it should, with no additional digital enhancement or manipulation.
The film comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options. Both are beyond reproach, though evidently, the 5.1 mix makes best use of the extra channels for separation and has greater impact. Recorded on a laptop often in improvised open-air locations rather than in the controlled environment of a recording studio, the sound may not be as clinically perfect as it could be, but the technology and engineering done have ensured that the recordings are very impressive indeed. In comparison to the previous 1 Giant Leap project, the sound is not quite as dynamic in its separation, its use of surrounds or its low-frequency range, the production here seeming to aim for a more natural, integrated sound, holding the songs together as a whole rather than as layers of different instruments. It’s an approach that is highly effective this time around, striking a perfect balance between vocals, instrumentation and interview segments in a much more organic way.
Impressively, the whole feature is subtitled, not only with one subtitle track, but two and both are optional in a white font. The first subtitle track translates non-English dialogue only, the second additionally provides English hard of hearing subtitles. Song lyrics are also covered in this second subtitle set, but only when sung in English.
In addition to the main feature-length film Disc One of the set also contains twelve individual Short Features, dividing the main film into discrete subjects. Unlike the first 1 Giant Leap release which allowed the viewer the choice of either viewing the individual pieces separately or looped as a film, the twelve pieces here are often different from the main film, using different reworked footage, interviews and new music pieces. The total running time of the 12 tracks is 160 minutes, while the film itself is 118 minutes. Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are provided.
The almost three hour long TV series on Disc Two presents yet another alternative way of viewing the material, as well as offering the equivalent of a Making Of. Divided into seven 24-minute episodes, the same themes are again covered, but here the contributors are all identified by name, as are some of the more unusual instruments played. The series gives a good indication of the concept of the project, the process involved in the writing and improvisation of the songs through jam sessions, and provides an insight on the personalities of both the creators and the contributors. The series is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack option only. Disc Two also includes a slideshow Photo Gallery (7:44) of behind-the-scenes stills.
I was initially disappointed not to find a booklet included with the set like the previous release, but happy to discover that the creators have sensibly gone for the environmentally-friendly option, including an 80-page booklet in the DVD-ROM material. It provides full credits and photographs for the contributors on each of the songs, has extensive Diary Excerpts from Duncan Bridgeman on the recording of the music sessions and from Jamie Catto on the interviews.
It’s as hard to sufficiently convey the ambition of 1 Giant Leap – What About Me? as it is to adequately do it justice in a review. As a musical project, it’s without parallel, the creators working largely outside the traditional commercial blueprint of the music industry, doing something that is genuinely innovative and exciting. What Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman manage to achieve here is quite remarkable, harnessing one of the most powerful forces in the world – music – taking it to a global scale and, through the use of other media, words and images, they use its lyricism and complexity to express profound ideas, concepts and emotions. The message they put across here is that despite all the problems we create - personal, social, political, religious and environmental – and despite the pain we cause ourselves and others, the world is still a wonderful place and, for all our diversity, we all have a part to contribute to it. Such optimism and self-affirmation is perhaps somewhat unfashionable in the world of music and filmmaking, but it’s a sentiment that is badly needed in the current global climate of doom and gloom. And if there is any way that point can be made convincingly, it’s over the course of the exhilarating 345 minutes of material presented so well on this remarkable DVD set.