Bill Streeter Celebrates St. Louis Culture—Current and Bygone
Art, at its most successful, guides us to consider the familiar in new ways or see something as though for the first time. Each time filmmaker Bill Streeter turns his lens on St. Louis, he makes this kind of art.
Take Lo-Fi Cherokee. If you aren’t already familiar with it, here’s how it works: Musical acts set up at pre-determined venues along Cherokee Street. Three different audio crews leapfrog down the street, followed by a film crew that captures a single song performed by each act. These are then edited into music videos and shown at a screening at a later date—and meted out online over the next several months. The alumni of Lo-Fi Cherokee are some of the best-known names in local music: Tonina, Cara Louise, Pat Sajak Assassins, Yowie, Syna So Pro, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, Pokey LaFarge …
In the seven years that Streeter has been doing Lo-Fi, he and his teams have managed to document an incredibly rich and diverse swath of St. Louis music. But to characterize Streeter’s work entirely in the context of Lo-Fi might be unfair. After all, Lo-Fi is filmed entirely in one day (albeit the time spent editing is substantial), while Streeter has also made an engaging and poetic film about the brick industry in St. Louis. The appropriately titled “Brick by Chance and Fortune” took several years to film, edit and produce.
Through his video production company, Hydraulic Pictures, Streeter has worked with PBS and produces commercial films for all kinds of clients. He’s also at work on another documentary on the local beer brewing industry.
Though Lo-Fi Cherokee may make up a relatively small percentage of Streeter’s output, it is certainly the most visible. At least among the local music community, Lo-Fi is a one of the most anticipated events in St. Louis. Participation in Lo-Fi Cherokee brings another layer of attention and validation for the artists involved. Streeter and his team shine a huge light on a culture largely hidden in the shadow of other markets. Lo-Fi Cherokee proves that the quality of a thing is not tethered to that thing’s market value or popularity.
Most of the musical acts involved are unknown on the national scene, and Lo-Fi Cherokee is, by its nature, almost an entirely local celebration. Though there have been a handful of national acts that have participated, this is a homegrown event, unique to St. Louis. Yet these films can stand up to anything on the national stage put out by major labels and production companies both in terms of production and performance. This underscores a major frustration of many St. Louis-based creatives: that St. Louis, despite its formidable cultural history, is often still considered flyover country.
For Streeter and his family, St. Louis was the destination. Having lived in Chicago for 12 years prior to moving to St. Louis, Streeter and his family were drawn in by the cost of living and the cultural depth of the city. Streeter recalls thinking, “Our friends have really nice apartments or they own their own houses, they live in nice neighborhoods, the cost of living is pretty cheap. Wouldn’t it be cool to live there?”
Streeter has taken a marked interest in the cultural history of St. Louis. His film “Brick by Chance and Fortune” is something of a love letter to the history and unique beauty of the façade of St. Louis. The film is everything a documentary should be: informative, engaging and, ultimately, moving.
As art that guides us to consider the familiar in new ways, “Brick” is incredibly effective. For local history buffs, the film feels vindicating and familiar. But the casual St. Louisan will walk away from this film with a new source of local pride. After a viewing of “Brick by Chance and Fortune,” your next stroll through Soulard or South City will take on new depth. Colors that have gone unnoticed or forgotten will dominate your attention, and you may wonder if perhaps “brick sunset” ought to have its own Crayola color.
Lo-Fi does this as well. Maybe it’s simply exposure to a group or style one isn’t familiar with, or maybe it’s the diversity that promotes a true sense of camaraderie and community, a shared goal of expression. Perhaps it’s the literal journey that everyone makes together down one of the most interesting and vibrant neighborhoods in St. Louis. Or maybe it’s simply the excitement of seeing a visual expression of a song you love that appropriately compliments that tune.
Lo-Fi feels optimistic and uplifting to a scene that struggles to be taken seriously. It celebrates the diversity, vitality and sincerity of that music.
Each Lo-Fi Cherokee film feels like a little found treasure. They are intimate and personal, even when they’re bombastic and raucous. The fact that they are documents of live performances helps to make each feel unique, since these performances can’t be found elsewhere.
But Streeter’s understanding of music and his astute interpretation and thoughtful editing that allows him to provide a fitting visual analogue to the music. “I’ve always appreciated music, always loved music,” he says. “I learned how music was put together and the structure of music … how to talk to musicians about music.”
Observe as evidence of this understanding the smooth pans set against syncopated cuts growing increasingly energetic parallel with the music in Anthony Lucius’s “Faith.” Or the sparkling, magical atmosphere of Seashine’s “Witch.” The film for Golden Curls’ “Say Love” can best be described as lush, perhaps also the most apt description of their music.
Streeter is not oblivious to the impact he’s made. “I was able to make a mark in some way here. I wasn’t looking to do that, but I was able to,” he says.
But one can wonder if Streeter himself fully recognizes what he has actually contributed. For all the apparent beauty and brilliance of “Brick” and Lo-Fi Cherokee, their spectacle and visibility are both the reason for, and the thing that obscures, another—possibly more valuable—contribution. A community has really coalesced around Lo-Fi Cherokee, and “Brick by Chance and Fortune” reminds us of the unique structure that makes St. Louis look so unique. Streeter’s work intimately and viscerally captures so much of the passions of the people and characteristics that make St. Louis such a culturally dense and salient city and galvanizes the communities that seek to nurture it.
Images courtesy of Auset Sarno.