Review by: Nate Nelson
Minneapolis-based indie rock wunderkinds Cloud Cult have always been known for their theatrical, visual music. After tragedy struck in 2002 to lead singer Craig Minowa’s two-year-old son Kaidin, the band released some of their most impactful work, with albums like They Live on the Sun and Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus. With The Seeker, Cloud Cult crafts their most cinematic work yet, with the band’s acting as the score for a film of the same name. Directed by Jeff D. Johnson and starring Alex McKenna and Josh Radnor, The Seeker is a beautifully minimalistic journey through familial tragedy. Using dreamy cinematography and a barebones plot, Cloud Cult’s first visual album allows the music to sit front and center, telling a uniquely personal tale of self-discovery.
The film tells the story of a young girl, Grace, whose idealistic rural life is uprooted by a tragic event in her youth. As she grows older, she turns bitter and narcissistic, moving away from the joy she witnessed as a child. Yet, after a memory from her past returns, she is sent on a long journey of personal discovery, reflection, and understanding. It’s a tale that is both heartbreaking and uplifting, which is a perfect fit for Cloud Cult’s danceable philosophical style.
The Seeker is a bit of an oddity in the film world in that it lines up with a very specific form, namely the visual album. Visual albums are films driven by a band’s music, falling more in line with music videos than typical filmmaking. With roots in the 1960s and 70s with works like The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the term was coined by experimental band Animal Collective with their 2010 release Oddsac, and since then the form has been on a bit of a mainstream comeback. While bands like Daft Punk dabbled with the form in the early 2000s with films like Interstellar 55555, the visual album has really come into a stride with artists like Kanye West, Beyonce, and Frank Ocean all releasing their own visual albums.
What sets these apart from other films are their adherence to the music. The music rarely act as just the score, but instead as the main thread tying all the visuals together. The Seeker is no different, with only two words being spoken throughout the entire film. Instead, Minowa’s vocals give each sequence the emotional and narrative thrust they need, acting as a sort of screenplay for the film. Knowing Minowa’s past trauma with familial loss, the film acts as a look into his psyche as a grieving father, wondering what the world might be like if he took his child’s place.
Johnson’s directorial flair has its roots in the films of Terrence Malick, with slowly paced editing centered on small moments and actions. For The Seeker, this works to capitalize on the surreal world of personal tragedy, acting as both an outward depiction of the events and a deeper character study of Grace. Like many other visual albums, the editing follows the music closely to let each sequence act as its own music video, with the few pauses used to add narrative context and closer looks at the characters’ lives.
The only problem is the film can often seem too stark and empty for its own good.With the music as emotionally driven as it is, The Seeker feels too clean for the story it’s depicting. The emotions are there, and the story is incredibly affecting, but every so often the film feels like it lacks detail. On the other hand, this visual minimalism does lend a stronger focus to the music and narrative, so it’s not a huge loss, but it would’ve been nice to see some more interesting visuals from time to time.
Thanks to Cloud Cult’s flair for storytelling, The Seeker is an entirely new kind of visual album. Unlike the abstract psychedelic menagerie of Animal Collective’s Oddsac, or the music video mashup of Beyonce’s Lemonade, Cloud Cult’s film is first and foremost a narratively driven film. The combination of minimalistic visuals, intense emotional music, and a deeply personal narrative makes for a visual album that is more film-oriented than any released in the past decade. Johnson’s eye for unique imagery and the subtle, yet adept performances from McKenna and Radnor work to make The Seeker an absolute must-see this festival season. If you’re a fan of either good music or great filmmaking, be sure to check it out.