Hip hop is as obsessed with its mysterious origins as the hero of any Marvel Comics series, and John Carluccio's documentary history of the DJ, Battle Sounds, reflects that curiosity. How, the film wonders, could the ingenious process of vinyl scratching arise? Hallowed elder Grandwizard Theodore has one answer. He was blasting his tunes up in his room, Theodore recalls, when his mother came down the hall to complain about the loud music. Startled, he grabbed the turntable to silence the record, and was enthralled by the sound the vinyl grooves made being dragged back under the needle. He let the record spin a bit, then jiggered it backward again. And again. And so, a new musical style was born.
Did it really go down like that? Well, Theodore does repeat the same story in Freestyle, Kevin Fitzgerald's documentary examination of the development of MCing. Besides, the fact that the story has the ring of apocrypha and yet earns acknowledgment from two documentarians makes it that much more exciting; I find myself wanting it all the more to be "true." After all, hip hop always runs into trouble when it tries to pinpoint literal truth. Do the music's origins lie in Jamaican toasting? In bop? Dozens? Sermons? Talking drums?
Fitzgerald isn't the first historian to make the case for all of these styles as a source without being able to empirically demonstrate a definite connection. And yet hip hop has drawn sustenance from each of these forms, and, more important, has redefined itself each time it goes back to its supposed roots. In other words, there's a cultural, poetic truth regarding the music that can't quite be plotted out on paper. Or onscreen.
That distinction between literal and figurative truth is just one of the questions raised by the "Sound Unseen" festival, a sprawling eight-day series of some 30 documentary and fictional films that descends upon Minneapolis this week. Curated by U Film Society's Nate Johnson, "Sound Unseen" is a daunting collection of music-related films, ranging in subject matter from surveys of the punk, indie, and hip-hop scenes to an examination of die-hard collectors of 8-track tapes. Various live performances and events--including appearances by many of the directors and the people in front of the lens--have been scheduled to keep your legs awake between screenings.
While this is far too extensive an array for one to suggest that a single "theme" runs through all these films, some common questions about documenting musical history do arise. Let's return to Battle Sounds (Saturday, October 7 at Bell Auditorium; Wednesday, October 11 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) and Freestyle (Friday, October 13 at Bryant-Lake Bowl), as viewed within this festival context. Just as no "genuine" documentary captures the spirit of the Beatles' cultural moment as fully as the mock documentary A Hard Day's Night, so the quasi-verité Wild Style (Friday, October 6 at Bell Auditorium) and even the glitzier Beat Street (Thursday, October 12 at Bell Auditorium) capture an energy that no pure hip-hop doc can quite encapsulate--including those two fine surveys mentioned earlier. After viewing the whole lot, we come to the realization that the myths that musicians and their fans trade in--the DIY democracy of Olympia, Washington's punks; or the spiritual power of the rave as evangelized by techno kids--are as important as any factual record.
The question that remains is, Who gets to authorize those myths? On one hand, we have the filmmakers, whose interviews and editing choices create historical narrative and preserve it for posterity. On the other, we have the musicians whose art seems to set the whole process in motion, and who recycle their stories for the documentarians' benefit. What many of these films wind up documenting, even more than the events that play out onscreen, is the tension between these two kinds of artists, each in search of their own vision of the truth.
Someone, somewhere, started a silly rumor (probably it was Jann Wenner) that musicians are interesting people. Of course, just like plumbers and ophthalmologists and actuaries and whoever happens to live in the apartment three doors down from you, musicians can very well be interesting folks. I hate to disparage the valiant efforts of video editors to splice the talking-head blather of personages more famous than we are into gripping narratives. But the lamentable fact is that one's charisma doesn't necessarily jump proportionately to one's rocketing sales.
And, no matter what indie-rock contrarians protest, the converse isn't true either. Take K Records impresario Calvin Johnson, seen here in both Songs for Cassavetes (Sunday, October 8 and Wednesday, October 11 at Bell Auditorium) and The Shield Around the K (Wednesday, October 11 at Bryant-Lake Bowl), as well as in the flesh at the Bryant-Lake Bowl showcase. Johnson demonstrates that you don't have to be famous to appear as tedious as the Band's Robbie Robertson ever was in The Last Waltz--and for exactly the same reason. Ask people to outline their achievements on camera and they'll almost inevitably sound pompous. People celebrating their own accomplishments are not very persuasive narrators.
They can be quite persuasive, however, if you're already a fan, in which case access to even the outermost thoughts of your idols is supposedly some kind of gift. For this expectation of wisdom from our entertainers, we can thank the holy trinity of the Sixties--the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. After all, no one ever expected Elvis to share any insight into his personality--you came away from his interviews seeming to know less about his music. But the Sixties rock figureheads were photogenic not just physically but intellectually as well: Their presence and image intimated intriguing thought processes. Lennon was fascinating enough to remain enigmatic no matter how much he said; Dylan was enigmatic enough to seem fascinating no matter how little he let on, and Jagger was wily enough to fake either an enigmatic or a fascinating appearance as the case demanded.
As smaller mortals took the stage after them, the popular imagination, trained to expect greatness from celebrities, dutifully feigned interest. It didn't take long for us, erstwhile obedient masses, to convince ourselves that celebrity alone could transform a dullard into an interesting figure. So just what are your political views, Mr. Frampton?
You could say that punk's DIY ethos assaulted this culture of celebrity--the punks never stopped saying it. But punk's ideology also preserved certain assumptions about its non-stars, namely that talented folks with guitars necessarily have great insight into the human condition. As punk turned into indie rock, people began to expect that artists, as the representatives of a subculture of decency, should be decent folks themselves. All this, years after Don't Look Back--where Dylan demonstrated that you could be both a genius and a mush-mouthed, twerpy little prick.
Even as wary a film as Penelope Spheeris's definitive L.A. punk ethnography The Decline of Western Civilization(Sunday, October 8; Bell Auditorium) winds up reinforcing the notion that the smartest offstage interviews are also the best onstage (and on-record) bands. And so X are personable, inquisitive bohemians who make personable, inquisitive bohemian music, while Black Flag are politically astute, even if their antiauthoritarian skepticism borders on paranoia. Just as true, sometime Slash-magazine pundit Claude Bessy is exactly as pigheaded spewing, "Zere is no such zing as new wave" into the camera as he is fronting the très précieux Catholic Discipline. And the pathetic Darby Crash grows harder to laugh at each year, just as his band the Germs grows harder to listen to.
Spheeris's film lays out a simple relationship between performer and offstage individual that's too good to be true: The people whose music we like turn out to be the people we like. The punch line, of course, comes in The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (Monday, October 9 and Tuesday, October 10 at Bell Auditorium), in which we learn that even the coolest punks from the previous flick seem less fun to hang with than the guys from Poison.
If the Northwest indie-rock scene and L.A. hardcore set alike hold that there are no stars, the New York punks who predated both were rooted in a Warholian ethic: Everybody is a star. Given this conceptual background, CBGB alums Talking Heads would go on to become the subject of the finest concert film ever, and downtown hanger-on Madonna would star in a masterful subtext-diddling tour doc of her own. And it's no surprise that 1991: The Year Punk Broke (Sunday, October 8 and Thursday, October 12 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) finds itself trapped between the older ethos of trash-glitz punk style and the anti-glamorous self-effacement of Kurt Cobain. When Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon parodies Truth or Dare, we're treated to an encapsulated history of New York bohemia's infatuation with celebrity. When Cobain and pals flounder around backstage trying not to draw too much attention to themselves, we're presented with a no-less-striking demonstration of indie rock's distrust of celebrity.
Art school dropouts before they're anything else, Sonic Youth can always be trusted to provide a typically downtown New York response to any question. And so The Year Punk Broke, the record of their 1991 European tour, suggests a formalist way out of the old backstage-banter-plus-live-footage routine. To put it kindly, the film attempts to puncture linear film narrative the way Sonic Youth shred pop form. That doesn't mean it's any fun to endure the hectic interspersal of near-random quick-cut footage into ferocious live performances (which should have been left alone). Meanwhile, Thurston Moore parodies himself, like a proto-Tom Green, or an Allen Funt wannabe.
The visual collage/barrage of Sonic Outlaws (Monday, October 9 at Bell Auditorium) is more successful at tweaking the formal aspects of the documentary, if only because it's more expert. The film begins by retracing the genesis of Negativland's "U2," in which the jokers mix a pirated tape of Casey Kasem spewing obscenities with the Irish band's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It's a masterly prank--all the more culturally resonant because they got busted for it, landing in an endless battle with Island records. Again it's always a mistake to let artists outline their aesthetic with the camera running. Negativland prove themselves capable of pontificating as tiresomely and smugly as U2. You're probably not watching this if you don't already have some notion of culture jamming, right?
But visually, the film's video bricolage matches the band's sonic process, mimicking commercial products even as it distorts them. And guess what? It looks a lot like MTV, which has already internalized and neutralized that sort of irony. How, then, do you jam a culture that thrives on its own ironies?
Maybe the answer to that riddle lies not with those artists who take it upon themselves to create the culture, but among the viewers and listeners who decide which cultural myths should be believed. Or, as noted field sociologist Alice Cooper declares in Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2, when it comes to rock 'n' roll, "It's all about the fans."
Of course, to argue that fans are always best at outlining their motives is reductive at least and romantically deluded at worst. (Quick--give me an objective rundown on the breakup of your last relationship.) But after decades of adult media condescension so intense it deserves a more militant youth rebellion than we've gotten to date, I'll gladly embrace the stumbling inarticulateness of the ravers in Better Living Through Chemistry (Friday, October 13 at Bell Auditorium) over the latest tabloid Ecstasy scare. These fans display a kind of utopian esprit and escapist desperation that's as central to the rave ethos as glowsticks and 808s. By its own transcendent definition, a rave is an experience that can't be duplicated or explained, as these interviews sometimes make tediously clear. But that doesn't mean there isn't something to be learned from those who attempt to describe that ecstasy (with a small "e").
Or that there isn't something to be learned from the contradictory sentiments they express: One kid talks about his straight-edge commitment; another concedes that, yes, he does come for the drugs. The documentaries playing at "Sound Unseen," as a general rule, work best when they avoid the rush for an official historical consensus and describe the differences between their subjects. What can seem like a stylistic border skirmish or a semantic quibble to an outsider can be integral to the dynamics of a subculture. And it's the duty of the documentarian to convey this. A far from stupid dispute in Songs for Cassavetes regarding what it means to sell out, for instance, allows different bands to explain their varying degrees of opposition to consumer capitalism. In the process the film demonstrates that Sleater-Kinney pledge allegiance to the same subculture as the aggressively dimwitted Make Up--always worth a reminder. We can also see that by risking an encounter with the outside world, Sleater-Kinney has managed to grow philosophically without being compromised. Even more important to these subcultural dynamics is that such disputes remain unsettled; a good fight is an invigorating thing.
These same documentaries fare even better when they link artists' values to the craft itself. This may seem like a fairly obvious point: If you were making a film about plumbers or ophthalmologists or actuaries, you'd delve into the specifics of their jobs. But rock documentaries often gloss over the act of making music as something too technical. Battle Sounds, by contrast, takes off when DJs begin arguing about the "proper" way to DJ, tsk-tsking those rivals who start doing headstands behind the turntables. And Freestyle isn't even always sure what its title means. Is freestyling the act of rhyming off the top of your head, with no prewritten lyrics? Or is it a rap, written or not, that flows without being tied to a single topic? At the heart of the hip-hop community, we realize, isn't any simplistic "unity," but a debate over artistic values that doubles as a self-serving argument between competitors.
Similarly, the local doc When We Play For Real (Monday, October 9 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) manages to capture the texture of another artistic clique by asking questions such as What keeps emo- and pop- and crusty-punks apart? Even more than in Freestyle, the contradictory sentiments inject a much-needed subjectivity into the proceedings. The scene is worse than ever, one punk grouses. The scene is better than ever, another suggests. The film's ultimate decision: It all depends on your perspective.
At such moments, these films seem to capture the grain of the communities they depict--the petty differences, the small triumphs, a sense of what is shared and what stands to be lost. This is a move away from the standard rock documentary, which articulates, sometimes subtly, sometimes merely implicitly, the divide between fan and musician, and between musician and star. (Such a discrete division of categories is certainly the case in Decline II.) Which doesn't mean that Alice Cooper may not be as close to right as any rock star has ever been.
The "Sound Unseen" festival runs Friday, October 6 to Friday, October 13. For more "Sound Unseen" reviews, see Film Clips, p. 46; for a full calendar of events call (612) 627-4431, or check the festival Web site,
Battle of the Bands
ROMANTIC COMEDIES in the pure sense of that phrase--fond portraits of creative folly--rock docs
have played on the cultural stage for nearly 40 years. Despite that august history, more people have probably seen the Bee Gees episode of VH1's Behind the Music than have seen all of the movies mentioned below, combined. Understanding that the television won't be revolutionized, we here offer a 100 percent objective list of the best films ever to mix cymbal crash with celluloid--that is to say, THE GREATEST ROCK DOCUMENTARIES IN RECORDED HISTORY! (Read loud.)
1. Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One)
So supernaturally central to the rock-doc genre as to suggest they sold their souls to the devil, the Rolling Stones here hand final-cut privileges to Jean-Luc Godard and suffer the consequences. The endless fly-on-the-wall scenes of Mick and Co. wanking over the title cut in a recording studio circa 1968 are subversive enough. And then the most radical filmmaker of the 20th Century adds Black Panther rhetoric and Weekend-style executions. Culture is war and war is hell--and the Stones are the devil. (Rob Nelson)
In August 1972 more than 100,000 people attended the so-called black Woodstock: a seven-hour concert at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (co-sponsored by Stax and Schlitz) commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. As the Stax aesthetic bridged Black Power and the almighty funk, the Staple Singers led a choir of thousands in "Respect Yourself"--proving, like the co-billed Richard Pryor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, that this was about more than just a groove. Would even another riot be enough to bring about a musical "day of black awareness" 30 years later? (Nelson)
3. That Was Rock
This snip-and-clip hodgepodge represents the only way you can presently acquaint yourself with 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show and 1966's The Big T.N.T. Show, two musical revues organized by Phil Spector that included everyone from the Stones to Ray Charles to the Ronettes. Poor Chuck Berry appears as narrator between live segments, referring to Bo Diddley and Gerry and the Pacemakers alike as his "friend." But these live spots are as revelatory as you'd hope. More so, even: You knew James Brown was dynamite in his prime, but you had no idea Smokey Robinson was this raw. (Keith Harris)
4. "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A."
Does this verité view of fresh-faced Liverpudlians making their way into the American music biz mark the end of an innocence? The wariness on John's face as the Beatles shuttle from fan-mobbed taxicab to idiotic radio program suggests as much: He's amused for now, but won't be for long. The phenomenon of public infatuation--Beatlemania--is an incredible thing as seen through the Maysles Brothers' lens. Sinatra's canny publicists were known to have paid girls to scream on cue; no one is faking it here. (Michael Tortorello)
5. Decline of Western Civilization
Though not as purely entertaining as its trashy metalloid sequel, the music is better here. Well, not as much better as you'd hope--art punks Catholic Discipline, c'est merde. But the music is more, comment dit-on, epochal. Where Darby Crash epitomizes the mainstream's idea of cartoon punk decadence more closely than the L.A. scene's well-wishers might hope, Black Flag articulate punk's political beliefs more fluently than most well-wishers might manage to do themselves. (Harris)
6. Stop Making Sense
Even when the music ages well, most concert films don't, dated by technique as much as soundtrack hiss. But Jonathan Demme's interview-free document of a Talking Heads gig (actually three of them) from 1984 seems to grow only more wondrous in retrospect: Its languorous camera movements and calm cuts seem less pretentious and more generous with every accelerated year. Demme probably never made a freer, more joyful movie in his career. (Peter S. Scholtes)
7. Kurt & Courtney
If Truth or Dare revealed what happens when a documentarian hands the production to his powerful subject, Nick Broomfield's tabloid wade through the grungy muck reveals what's left when all cooperation and access is denied. Never mind the bottom feeders' half-baked theory that Courtney had the Nirvana frontman "whacked": What's really whacked here is the illusion of documentary objectivity in an age when truth is only truth if it bolsters someone's PR campaign. And isn't that part of what drove Kurt over the edge in the first place? (Nelson)
8. Truth or Dare
As spontaneous as D-Day, this documentary may have only comic value as a genuine backstage pass. But the punch line is that Madonna makes herself look occasionally unglamorous and even self-serving as a way of proving her humanity--or making the puffier moments seem more credible, or maybe just getting her rocks off. Still, the result is not just a testament to the media manipulation that is supposedly her true art form, but also to the music, which is the reason she got to manipulate us in the first place. (Harris)
9. Driver 23
So close in tone to the following year's American Movie that it might be dubbed American Band, Rolf Belgum's grainy chronicle of a struggling heavy-metal bandleader is an even weirder blur of the empathetic and the wry. While guitarist Dan Cleveland--with his homemade cement-brick exercise machine and his absolute conviction in himself--may certainly be one in a million, he is also probably one of a million. This is small-time rock 'n' roll pathos immortalized. (Scholtes)
10. X: The Unheard Music
Where Decline of Western Civilization was bemused, X is indignant, examining the period when L.A.'s most important group began to suspect it was being cheated out of an audience by the radio-distribution system. One priceless scene has director W.T. Morgan interviewing a dim-witted record exec who explains how he initially turned down X in favor of bands that sound, as he says, like REO Speedwagon. Yet after its art-house release, this beautifully shot doc never found its way onto video--still unheard. (Scholtes)