To say Fred Frith is a guitarist is a little like calling Mother Teresa a social worker. It's true enough, but hardly captures the depth and complexity of his work.
"Step Across the Border" indicates something of the scope of Frith's music, but does much better by his more conventional grooves than by his bang-on-a-can experiments. The documentary from Swiss filmmakers Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel opens Sunday at the Nuart Theatre and runs through Tuesday.
Shot in grainy black-and-white, "Step Across the Border" attempts an improvisational approach to its subject, tracking Frith in Europe, Japan and America. Humbert and Penzel suggest rather more alienation than does the quietly ironic and elliptical guitarist, who speaks earnestly about the importance of performer-audience interaction to his music, but is largely shown as a solitary traveler.
The early going is a swirl of musical bits and alternative culture in-jokes that may amuse fans, while teasing the Frith novice with its abrupt treatment of the most interesting sounds. The cinematic posturing there is actually at odds with Frith's pretention-free music, almost reducing Frith to the level of coffeehouse rebel.
In its final third, however, "Step Across the Border" becomes a compelling, poignant film, its obsessions with buses and trains blossoming into a commuter elegy, bolstered by the most extended song excerpts. The film also allows the industrial sounds of travel their own voice, which does connect well with the Frithian aesthetic.
Other musicians make appearances, most prominently and effectively violinist Iva Bitova.
'Step Across the Border'
A Roxie Releasing release of a Res Balzil, Cine Nomades production. Directors Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel. Screenplay Humbert and Penzel. Photography Oscar Saigodo. Editor Gisela Castronari. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.