In 1982, a band emerged from the rotten bowels of New York City and became legends in the annals of independent music. That band was Swans, led by charismatic, enigmatic frontman Michael Gira. For over 15 years, the group went from bludgeoning to wowing audiences with their unique songwriting before suddenly breaking up in 1997. Gira reformed the group in 2010, released several albums and continues to oversee what is probably their most successful period. With Where Does A Body End? director Marco Porsia delivers an intense, comprehensive documentary of the band that is every bit as massive as their recordings.
To understand Swans, you have to know their music. Early records like Filth and Cop reflected the dangerous environment of Downtown New York through driving brutal beats augmented with scrap metal percussion, noise-fueled guitars, and Gira’s bleak, violent lyrics. Once Jarboe joined in the mid-80s, the music shifted to a dirty minimalist, industrial sound with prominent use of samples and drum machines, which can be heard on Greed and Holy Money. Finally, Children of God saw the music shift toward melody while retaining the dark lyrical subject matter.
1989’s The Burning World laid the foundation for the droning, rock-oriented sound that persisted through the mid-90s. This sound continues in the modern incarnation of Swans, though more epic and orchestral in nature, with single songs reaching over 30 minutes in length. They’re not for everybody, but for those disgusted by the doldrums of pop music, they’re a godsend.
“…Swans…[wows] audiences with their unique songwriting…”
Porsia does an admirable job telling us everything we ever wondered about Swans but never had the means to ask. As the group is really Gira’s vision, the story focuses on him. We learn about his delinquent childhood and nomadic teen years, his brief encounter with the early Los Angeles punk scene, and immersion into art. After moving to New York, he joined the dark post-punk band Circus Mort, and after their breakup, he set out to create his own vision with Swans. Eventually, he met Jarboe, a fan from Georgia, who would become his musical and life partner until Gira’s inner demons led him to dissolve the band in the ’90s. He turned to neo-folk with Angels of Light, but eventually found himself writing angry songs again, which led to the reformation of Swans and the gargantuan powerhouse they are now.
Of course, a story of this magnitude can’t be told in a scant 90 minutes, which explains the well over two-hour runtime, but just like the music that inspired it, every bit is necessary. There isn’t any filler or lag time, just an in-depth examination of a powerful artist by his fellow bandmates, both past and present, longtime friends and fans who find solace in the mind-altering effects of Swans’ music. Then there’s Gira himself, whose unbridled honestly and self-awareness confirm that you’re getting the real person and not a fabricated persona.
Where Does a Body End? exists for both longtime fans and anyone who’s always wondered what Swans are about. Like their founder, Swans are complicated, mysterious, beautiful, ugly, vicious, loving, majestic, and very much alive. That Marco Porsia captured their many faces to this extent is an astounding achievement in its own right, but then to build something both captivating and informative from such split personalities is pure cinematic magic.
"…for those disgusted by the doldrums of pop music, they're a godsend."