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The Funk over Funkytown

They once were lost, but now they're the Found

Any filmmaker attempting to capture the pathos of trying to "make it" in the music business could do worse than to train a camera on the Twin Cities music scene. It was here that Rolf Belgum filmed his documentary Driver 23, an unflinching gaze into the life of an inept yet driven "progressive metal" bandleader. If that film becomes the cult hit it deserves to be, credit Belgum's choice of subject matter: Delivery driver Dan Cleveland was no rock star in the making, and that's exactly what made him such a resonant anti-hero.

Funkytown: The Motion Picture similarly peers at the unglamorous life of aspiring local musicians, but its tone is one of boosterism. Written and directed by local music entrepreneur Steven Greenberg, the film profiles five bands struggling on the brink of success--Greazy Meal, Iya, the Delilahs, the Found, and Tina & the B-Sides. None of the groups "makes it," and the movie becomes a portrait of noble struggle, packaged as an underdog vehicle like X: The Unheard Music or Half Japanese: The Band that Would Be King. Subtitling the movie Rock & Roll with the Punches, Greenberg wants you to rock with his subjects and feel their pain. And he intersperses concert footage with earnest Real World-style interview segments about everything from day jobs to religion.

The first problem with this approach is that none of the bands is as compelling as X or Half Japanese. The B-Sides and Greazy Meal, though not unappealing, are hardly the sort of charismatic originals who can carry a feature-length rock-doc. Perhaps sensing this, Greenberg jumps from band to band, barely acquainting us with each subject's passions and quirks before serving up their personal and financial woes. And slowly, the film's clinker of a theme--it's not easy being a musician--comes to the fore. The film does document one tragic twist: Reggae singer Iya was murdered before production wrapped. Still, this fate could have befallen anyone, musician or other, and it doesn't give the theme any more emotional punch.

As a meditation on frustrated rock dreams, Funkytown would have benefited from a cross section of local bands, but Greenberg's selection is curiously limited. (For what it's worth, having seen more than 100 Minnesota bands play this year, I would not count any of the Funkytown five among our greatest musical treasures.) Despite the genre implied in the title, Funkytown has little time for the black music scene outside of Greazy Meal's crossover crowd, and it skips hip-hop and club music entirely. What seems to have earned the groups screen time is that they were all at one point considered "buzz bands."

This makes sense, since Greenberg is enmeshed in the business he depicts. The drummer-turned-producer had his own national breakthrough in 1980 when he wrote and recorded the electro-boogie tune that conveniently serves as the film's title. Far from being a tribute to the Twin Cities, Lipps, Inc.'s "Funkytown" was an escapist disco anthem about moving to a place with more "energy."

But neither St. Paul native Greenberg nor lead singer Cynthia Johnson needed to leave home for the song to hit No. 1 on the dance, pop, and R&B charts--before its writer had even assembled a proper touring band. As it happens, "Funkytown" is covered slow and easy in the film by Greazy Meal (it's a staple of their live shows), and their particular rendition suggests they're in no hurry at all to "move on."

What viewers never learn is that the connection between song and movie is more than thematic. The hit's royalties helped Greenberg build Funkytown Studios and start his label, October Records, which released the Funkytown soundtrack some months back. Both companies are connected to all of the musicians involved in the movie, and viewers unaware of this may notice a series of what at first seem like small-town coincidences. A few Greazy members back Iya in concert at one point, then the band's manager pops up later working for Tina & the B-Sides. In fact, Greazy guitarist John "Strawberry" Fields is Greenberg's nephew and a house producer at Funkytown Studios, where Fields has produced work by all the acts on screen. He has since left Greazy to focus on production full time.

This business "synergy" is neither sinister nor shocking, but it does explain why Funkytown wallows in the funk of self-promotion. It's as if a basketball scout had directed Hoop Dreams, spotlighting players he wanted to sell to the NBA. And Greenberg's self-interested selection of bands necessarily limits the film's intellectual scope: All the musicians here conceive of success in pretty conventional terms. Greenberg ignores local DIY punk acts such as Dillinger Four, for example, who tour basements across the continent in a van, like Minneapolis punk legends of yore. The director similarly skips just-for-kicks bar bands--such as Trailer Trash or the Legendary Combo--that happily make a decent living at home with little care for national fame.

The bands in Funkytown, by contrast, are what an unctuous A&R guy might refer to as "comers." They yearn for major-label deals and the high-profile gigs that nab them. They "really want it," per industry speak. This becomes evident early on in the Greazy Meal segment. The movie just about jumps off the screen when the band takes the stage, prancing and jiving like the sensual spawn of Kool & the Gang and the Muppet Show band. And the group clearly flies the freak flag, with muscled singer Julius C. Collins III contorting in a soaked headband while the other musicians wear long hair and bell-bottoms. But when band members later admit in interviews that they've stopped embracing girlfriends after shows because it alienates female audience members, you begin to see the careerists beneath the funky clothes.

Greazy, their managers, and their girlfriends are by far the most entertaining and engaging people in Funkytown, so it's somewhat disappointing when Greenberg eventually segues into a segment on pop-rockers the Delilahs, who are more blatant in their ambition. But Greenberg may not have had the money to delve as deeply into the lives of the other four bands, and after he sets the tone with a shot of Delilahs bassist Wally Marx taking out the trash at his café job (oh, the indignity!), the movie sputters. Bluegrass rockers the Found, posed in front of the Women's Club of Minneapolis where they work, come off as amusing jokesters, but that doesn't tell us anything we can't glean from footage of their live show.

Iya's peace-loving (and white) Rastafarian persona seems pompous and spacey in interviews--he calls Bob Marley "brother Bob"--and we only fleetingly see his casual side, when he's goofing with friends. After his death, we see fans, family, and friends gathering to remember him, but the sequence leaves us strangely cold: It's a funeral for someone we still don't know.

The Delilahs' most emotional moment comes when one band member splits up the group just after their coveted record deal comes through. But Funkytown never questions the value--and the ultimate viability--of the major-label route to achieving success. Greenberg is too close to the bands and the industry to pull back and ask hard questions, like why Tina & the B-Sides seems to be the only one of these groups touring across the country.

But then for Greenberg to do this, he would have needed to scrutinize his own standard operating procedure: Three of the five groups were at one time signed to October Records, an imprint Greenberg started for the purpose of, as the press release puts it, "grooming local bands for major-label contracts."

Today as seldom before, this is a false grail. For evidence, one need look no further than Tina & the B-Sides, whose first major-label album was lost in the restructuring shuffle at Sire and released with no support. This is typical of corporate record labels, which often give artists a single chance to become stars--and frequently, not even that. And so the old saw is turned on its head: In the music industry, nothing fails like success.

Funkytown premieres Friday for a two-week run at Suburban World Theatre; 825-6688.


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