During the summer of 2009 in Chicago, musician Andrew Bird had been touring for years at such a constant pace that he'd literally made himself sick, "either sweating bullets or freezing cold," as he put it. He was approaching his 165th and final show of the year with a band he probably wouldn't ever play with again, and he wanted it documented.
So Bird asked his friend, the filmmaker and producer Xan Aranda, to make a movie about him. But even though they'd been friends for several years and had already collaborated on two animated videos and live show projections, Aranda said no.
"I was busy and afraid," she tells me over the phone recently. After her conversation with Bird, though, she hopped on her bike, and before even getting halfway home, she says, "I had a flood of ideas. I called him up and said, 'Let's talk about it.'"
The result is Fever Year, a film so viscerally beautiful and sonically precise that it will delight the cult follower and the Andrew Bird newcomer alike. Part documentary, part concert film, Fever Year is as much about the creative process as it is about Bird, whose latest album, Break It Yourself, was released in 2012. "Have I simply been ill this year," Bird wonders, "or am I turning into another type of animal?"
Fever Year is Aranda's directorial debut. "I wanted something that would challenge me almost to the death," she says of making the film, which she likens to getting a master's degree. "It was expensive and I'm still paying for it," she says, "but afterward, I knew I'd walk away a director."
Racking up praise, awards and air miles, Aranda has traveled to screenings all over the world, from Copenhagen to Cleveland. But the Illinois native is particularly excited to return to Sonoma County where she lived for a year and a half, attending the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville just after high school. ("I knew I was going to film school," she explains, "but I wanted to get a handle on my body first.")
Aranda's corporeal fascination is evident in Fever Year, which captures the fluid physicality of everything Bird does, from whistling to swimming to bowing his violin. "Imagine the worst year of your life, physically, emotionally and romantically," Aranda says of the film, "and there is now a permanent record of it."
Perhaps that explains why Bird, who approved of each edit along the way, unexpectedly pulled the plug at the point of release. No DVDs and no theatrical release, he decided. Just film festivals.
Aranda is characteristically blunt and resilient about this drastic change of plans. "It's definitely a shit sandwich," she says, laughing. "But the lemonade of it is this: people who see it are supporting their own local arts organizations. And they see it as close to my intentions sonically and visually as I could want."
Despite all of her unpaid hard work, Aranda has no regrets about making Fever Year.
"It's like a big musical hot tub," she says, "and who wouldn't want to get into a big musical hot tub with Andrew Bird?"
'Fever Year' screens with Xan Aranda in attendance on Friday, March 22, as part of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 7:15pm. $10. 707.829.4797. www.sebastopolfilmfestival.org.