BLIP FESTIVAL: Reformat the Planet – SXSW 2008 Review

     March 10, 2008

Written by Aaron Roxby

Chip Music is cooler than I expected it to be. I was a bit wary of techno music made by an 8-bit game console. The concept seemed a bit too gimmicky, nostalgia-drenched and dorky, even for me. While kitsch certainly has its place, I was afraid that two hours trapped in a theater with the Bubble Bobble theme might be enough to drive me to gibbering madness. Fortunately, Paul Owens’ Chiptune documentary Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet showcases a music scene that would be better described as a stripped down, charmingly nerdy version of electronic dance music.

Not to imply that Blip Festival won’t, at times, provide serious Contra flashbacks. Chiptunes are created by hacking 8-bit gaming hardware (usually a Gameboy or NES) and synthesizing music in real time using special software (LSDJ being the most popular). In its purest form, a Chip Music performance will feature a single musician, apparently playing Tetris, but actually creating music live, on the spot. In other cases, artists may add vocals, additional DJ equipment, guitars, drums, banjos and anything else you can use to make sound, to varying degrees of success. The sound can vary wildly, sounding like J-Pop, Disco, Industrial Metal, Boss Fight Music, electronic dance music and just about anything else that might contain an electronic element.

Reformat the Planet is primarily a concert film, focusing on 2006’s annual Blip Festival, held in New York City. Snippets of performances by many groups are shown, inter-cut with interviews, a brief history of the art form and some light technical data. The concert footage is very well shot, with an eye for the bright color schemes and flashing lights that visually dominate the concert; Reformat is beautiful, if at times a bit seizure inducing. Ultimately, the film may try to tackle a bit too much for its relatively light running time. Only a few performances are shown in their entirety, leaving the viewer a bit unfulfilled but, with an interest in hearing more.

More than a retro-gimmick, Chiptunes represent a sort of lo-fi reaction to the shiny, sleek, overproduction that has infested modern music in almost every genre. While those who can recite the Konami Code by heart (IE: dirty cheaters) will probably get a bigger kick out of it than most, there is something legitimate in this movement and Owens’ film serves as a great catalyst into its beeping, pixilated heart.

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