“This movie is about the end of the world,” the ominous voice of director Marnie Ellen Hertzler whispers as the vast expanse of the Colorado desert fades in from black. The timing was, as one Hyperallergic writer pointed out, uncanny. When Crestone premiered at the 2020 True/False film festival in early March, our planet was on the cusp of going into complete lockdown. No one knew what was coming, but some of us could smell it in the air.
Crestone, which is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, follows a group of Soundcloud rappers moving to the eponymous 89-person desert town within the San Luis Valley. Setting up shop inside dilapidated houses held together by nails and duct-tape, they smoke weed and tinker with their songs while subsisting on grilled spam on slices of white bread and instant ramen with ketchup.
Crestone isn’t just Hertzler’s directorial debut. It’s also the first movie ever to be scored by the legendary pop band Animal Collective. For Hertzler, it was an easy decision, and not just because she’s been a fan of the band ever since she was a teenager. “I wanted someone to score the film knowing the rappers are musicians in their own right,” she explained over Zoom. “I wanted their music to describe them and have someone else describe the landscape.”
Cowboys And Cacti
Josh “Deakin” Dibbs, who met Hertzler in New Orleans, was more than happy to team up with his old neighbor. Though people ask Animal Collective for soundtracks all the time, they usually just want licensed songs (think “My Girls” playing over the house party montages in Project X), so working with a filmmaker who insisted they make their own, original music was a welcome change of pace. Plus, the primordial setting of Crestone fitted their psychedelic style like a glass slipper.
“A lot of things in the desert feel close when they’re not really,” Brian “Geologist” Weitz, who wrote one half of the soundtrack while Deakin worked on the other, recounted. Like the rappers featured in the film, Geologist also spent a bit of time living near Four Corners back when he was still considering a career in environmental science. He had been wanting to make a record about the place ever since.
Few people know how to describe a place through sound like Animal Collective, and their work on Crestone does not disappoint in this department. Studying the footage, Deakin and Geologist took background noises like blowing wind or running water and made them such an integral part of the music that, if you were to take them out, the tracks would no longer make sense. They wanted, as Deakin explained, “to blur the line between the music that’s scored and the sounds from the scene itself.”
Loss of Complacency
Pretty postcards and romanticized Hollywood flicks have conditioned us to think of the desert as a place where you go to find yourself: an oasis of enlightenment and self-discovery where any kind negative emotion magically evaporates. This image of the desert shows up again and again in Crestone. It’s there when the rappers get together to smoke blunts in front of rainbow colored sunsets or tumble down skyscraper-sized sand dunes.
According to Geologist, however, that’s only one side of the experience. “If you live there and have to walk home every day for a couple of miles, you don’t always feel safe. You feel small, minimized. There are those spiritual, positive vibes. But there is a loss of complacency as well. Sometimes when people make desert rock records it feels a little too one note, like they’re making a record about their vacation to the desert rather than what it feels like to actually live there.”
Sharing snapshots of their indefinite holiday through social media, the Soundcloud rappers carefully curate their online personas, blending boundaries between who they are and what they want to be. To get a sense of the isolation, the silent existential dread, you have to look beyond what’s on Snapchat and Instagram. Like Hertzler, Animal Collective went the extra mile and created a soundtrack that captures what it’s like to feel so incredibly small in a place so unbelievably big.
Under The Exhaust
The fact that two established artists were scoring a movie about a group of musicians looking to find their footing wasn’t lost on Deakin and Geologist, who recognized themselves in the rappers in more ways than one. The freedom and inspiration that nature can provide a struggling musician is one of them, as was the sense of community that brought these guys together and turned them into a collective of their own.
The aforementioned sight of rappers smoking blunts under a rainbow colored sunset also brought back flashbacks, albeit of a time that has since past. Geologist says he still smoked a fair bit while working on Crestone, but getting high isn’t always easy when you’re a parent. “I take my kids to school and have to think about interacting with their teachers,” he explains, adding COVID turned him into a “late-night, under-the-exhaust-fan-in-the-kitchen-type smoker, after everyone’s gone to bed.”
“Weed is a huge part of my relationship,” Deakin echoes. “But in recent years I’ve pared back a lot more for mental health reasons.” Though THC has turned into a game of Russian roulette, he still dabbles in other things. “Psychedelics still play an important role in my life and very frequently I will microdose. I usually come out of a trip feeling my compass has been realigned.”
Crestone And Moving On
The opening statement, “This movie is about the end of the world,” didn’t only apply to us viewers, but to the rappers as well. Since Crestone wrapped up shooting a few years ago, the rappers have left their desert town behind and returned home to the crowded suburbs of North Carolina and Florida. When I asked Hertzler if the return to civilization had been difficult for them, she shook her head. They did have to get different jobs, though, as growing marijuana is yet to be legalized there.
As for Deakin and Geologist, they’ve gotten back to working on Animal Collective’s next album. Development is a bit behind schedule, as so many things are during the pandemic, but they say they’re making good progress, and that things will go even smoother once Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox is able to visit from Portugal, where he lives.
Fortunately, we have Crestone to keep us company for the time being.