The Hoboken trio, who have done stellar work scoring indie films such as Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy and Phil Morrison's Junebug, have never been involved in a project quite like this. "Something we've never done always seems like a good idea," said Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan.
Green will also be on stage, narrating his paean to Fuller, the futurist inventor (the geodesic dome and Dymaxion car), author ( I Seem to Be a Verb), and architect. He lived in Philadelphia from 1973 to 1980 and taught at Penn, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore.
Green was nominated for a best documentary Oscar for The Weather Underground, his 2003 study of the 1970s U.S. radical organization. The unconventional format for Love Song was born while he was making his 2011 documentary, Utopia in Four Movements.
Utopia wasn't coming together. "I got stuck," Green said. "I couldn't get it to work." Asked to do a presentation about it, he agreed, taking along his friend Dave Cerf, who scored The Weather Underground, to play music.
Green liked the format. "It was a lot of fun," he said. "There was a lot of energy and a big crowd of people who hung out afterward. . . . All of that crystallized into, 'Why don't I do a movie like this?' I like this form for many reasons, from political to aesthetic to economic. It's a temporary collective experience."
When Green, who splits his time between Brooklyn and San Francisco, was pitched by the San Francisco Museum of Art about a Fuller documentary, he admits he thought of him as merely "the dome guy."
He soon discovered Fuller was much more than that. For research, he checked out Fuller's Dymaxion Chronofile at Stanford University, which contains 25,000 boxes and is considered the largest collection of paper belonging to a single person in the world.
"I was so floored by his archive," Green said. "For a number of years, it was in Philadelphia. He started it in the 1920s. Every day, he would file all the things that came across his desk. It's the perfect expression of who he was. The intensity, the meticulousness, the grandiosity. And also a very focused sense of curiosity and experimentation. He saw it as a record of one person in the 20th century."
It wasn't just that Fuller was an eccentric pack rat of epic proportions. It was realizing that "his ideas are perhaps more relevant now than they've ever been. He was saying things in the 1930s and 1940s about sustainability and resources. . . . In a nutshell, he believed that by building things more efficiently and doing more with less, we could fairly distribute the world's resources. And if people weren't fighting over resources, there would be peace."
Green approached Yo La Tengo after he saw the trio play behind the short films of the late French moviemaker Jean Painlevé. "It was so enthralling," he said. "I was almost weeping in the audience."
With Utopia under his belt, he plotted Love Song as a documentary with live music with images cued from his laptop. He adapts his narration to each performance locale, with Philadelphia being particularly rich.
"Constantly changing gears is something we enjoy doing," said Kaplan, of Yo La Tengo, which also includes his wife, Georgia Hubley, on drums and James McNew on bass. The band, which will appear on the NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation this month, is winding down tour dates for Fade, its 13th studio album, which came out in early 2013.
"The least fun aspect of this is scheduling," Kaplan said, "because the world Sam is working in is one of extremely long planning. There have been times where we've been asked to do a show over a year ahead of time. That really speaks to how much fun it is to do it, because it would be easy to just forget it."
Of course, committing to the live documentary format means that although every presentation of The Love Song of Buckminster Fuller will be unique, curious viewers will never be able to pop it into a DVD player or stream it on Netflix.
"We are awash in media," Green said, "and I think that shapes the way we engage with it, the way we watch things. It's true that fewer people will see it this way. But I think the idea of making something that's ephemeral is an important thing to put out there. Giving yourself over to a cinematic experience, with other people, with a heightened sense of the present. I love that, and I don't want to lose that."
"The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller," at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd., at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday. Sold out. Information: 215-413-9006 or www.livearts-fringe.org.