Review: "The Obs: A Singapore Story"

Known for their constant innovation and brooding, introspective sound, The Observatory is one of Singapore's longest-surviving and critically acclaimed bands, and the subject of the experimental music documentary The Obs: A Singapore Story (2014).  

Artist Debbie Ding, interviewed in the film, describes The Observatory as "an alternative archive". For more than a decade, the film shows in its chronological journey through their discography, the band has shouldered this responsibility, consciously or otherwise, with their continued "spirit of inquiry and experimentation". 

Originally conceptualised as The Obs: A Documentation, the crowdfunded film eventually became The Obs: A Singapore Story, "refocusing from the band to the land through the eyes of its members", according to the filmmakers. Candid interviews with each of the band's past and present members including Leslie Low, Vivian Wang, Dharma, Victor Low and Evan Tan reveal how the city's changing physical landscape—the lonely elderly in Tanglin Halt, witnessing the "neighbourhoods that you grew up in getting paved over and buildings brought up for the interest of industry" (Mark Dolmont)—influenced the music's increasingly darker emotional soundscapes, alongside deeply relatable personal experiences ranging from a regimented childhood, the desire to migrate and the eventual decision to stay, to the challenges of touring after starting a family. 

When interspersed with painstakingly assembled, intimate archival footage of rehearsals in crowded living rooms, recording sessions in dimly-lit studios and early performances in local venues, the passage of time becomes apparent not just in the maturing faces and varying hairstyles but in the smallest incidental details: a blocky computer from the 90s, a smartphone resting on a console more recently. 

With the past and the present supplemented by insights from collaborators and contemporaries like X' Ho providing historical background, Bani Haykal recalling the band's inspirational musical prowess, and acclaimed improvisational musician and author David Toop considering Singapore's unique cultural context, The Obs: A Singapore Story is valuable as a primer on post-90s Singapore music history, recalling the organic liveliness of a scene encouraged by the BigO zine, a state wary of youthful energy expressed in long hair and slamdancing, and more recent developments such as the emergence of performance venues, The Observatory's first official gig at The Substation in 2003 and a now seemingly distant time in which regional record labels entered the scene and stores like HMV and Tower Records were still active and viable selling points for music.

But above all, the film documents the patience and passion of a group of individuals whose desire to pursue creative work has sustained them through years of an evolving sociopolitical climate, shifting national priorities and sea changes within the music industry as a whole. 

Thoughtfully and patiently created by director Yeo Siew Hua and co-producers Adeline Setiawan and Dan Koh,  The Obs: A Singapore Story is an insightful, if slightly meandering, watch which will definitely satisfy the band's fans, but which remains also accessible enough to resonate with anyone concerned with what it means to make art, and to daily live the urban experience, in modern Singapore with deliberate sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

Review by Aditi Shiva | Images c/o filmmakers 

Catch The Obs: A Singapore Story this weekend:

Sat, 7 Feb, 10pm
Sun, 8 Feb, 7.30pm
$12; pay at the door
6001 Beach Road 
#05-00 Golden Mile Tower
Singapore 199589

Follow the film's Facebook page for further updates.

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