Documentary Or The Truth?
Equal parts civics lesson and group-therapy purge, a flashback to the hardly Edenic indie '80s, and an "R.I.P." written in sweat, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen sends up a solemnly sweet glory-be for the corndog superheroes of American punk-rock humanism. Director Tim Irwin convenes a baptism down at the old red river of DIY democracy, a parched little creek only a dunk or two from being sopped up entirely. But even if you've fidgeted through the sermon a million times before, the parable of guy-guy agape between brainstem-sharing ultra-bros Mike Watt and D. Boon nearly fills the get-in-the-van gospel with a fresh tank of fuel.
Childhood pals from ass-out harbor town San Pedro, California, big-hearted, Bluto-sized guitarist Boon and flannelled bassist/theorist Watt formed their band with drummer and occasional spat-mediator George Hurley in 1979, picking a name that lampooned a reactionary pun (though most saw it as an allusion to their sharply clipped song lengths) and setting off to find themselves in a West Coast hardcore scene where they fit in about as well as a Tom Joad cameo in Repo Man. By the time of Boon's tragic departure on an Arizona highway in 1985, just days after finishing a successful tour opening for R.E.M., the Minutemen had recorded well over 100 songs (or "spiels")--genre-smearing blurts of atomized punk/funk/jazz/folk dialectic with titles like "If Reagan Played Disco," "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing," and "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?" Never stopping to edit a thought, pull back an impulse, or pass up a taco, they also didn't bother for a second that, fashion-wise, they made Hüsker Dü look like Destiny's Child.
Indeed, describing their "look," such as it wasn't, can't even hint at the Himalayan heights of fashionlessness they cleared simply by attempting to hew their personal sense of style--cut-off shorts, tucked-in short-sleeved dress shirts, etc.--to staged performance. The Minutemen existed in a kind of Sufi rapture of dork-chic transcendence. (If carbohydrates were heroin, they would've been Alice in Chains.) Yet the fact that you could've smuggled all the members of Franz Ferdinand through customs in Boon's paunch and still have room for a few burritos once you hit the border underscores a penchant for world-snarfing excess unique to a scene sure of its own anti-pop austerity. This is a band that reached its artistic high point with a 46-song double album, 1984's Double Nickels on the Dime (which Hurley claims they learned in a week or so). Their 40-song sets stretched to include Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult jams, plus a honky-tonk ditty about U.S. intervention in El Salvador and a rap about Boon's Vietnam-vet brother. It's hard to know which came first, the freedom or the obliviousness--but that question opened a raging conversation on the vicissitudes of you-name-it. Epic magnanimity became the engine of artistic self-discovery. Boon's shtick (their term) was a working-dude take on the Baudelairean tumult of heroes Bob Dylan and Richard Hell; Hurley's was a sort of lumpensurfer version of Elvin Jones, Watt's a found-poetry modernism exemplified thusly:
Merv Griffin said, "In the heart of Italy, the people there are probably the least religious in the world." Then Sophia Loren said, "I don't know about that." What does America mean to you? America means everything to me. (Uh, totally, dude. Now let's go get sushi and not pay.)
Rock music--and youth culture in general--demands compliance often before the complier has arrived at anything remotely resembling a functioning ego. The fallow fields of pop mimesis are stacked high with fallen souls of many a waste-case Icaroid; solid citizenship is a tougher sell. But even in a scene comparatively teeming with social and aesthetic do-gooders--from consumer advocate Ian MacKaye to curator-communitarian Thurston Moore and anti-Bush bloggin' Bob Mould--these cats were an inspiration: refusing to start shows after 7:30 so "working folks" like themselves could get a good night's sleep, writing tour-bus poetry about the duty of parents to involve kids in the arts. Not exactly Hammer of the Gods. Yet, as Moore recalls, "They kinda blew minds" nonetheless, rewriting life-as-art fundamentals one on-record shouting match at a time.
Had Michael Azerrad not used the phrase in his 2001 history of '80s indie rock, Irwin would no doubt have named his film after the legendary salvo that opens the 23rd song on Double Nickels on the Dime: "Our Band Could Be Your Life," a challenge specific to an ancient era when taking your artistic vision into the world entailed something more than setting up an Earthlink account. Instead, Irwin settles for the band's second-most-quoted maxim: "We jam econo" (i.e., cheap)--an allusion to their short songs, necessarily ascetic lifestyle, and working-class politics.
Between the incantatory warmth of the first phrase and the determination of the second, Irwin locates an aggravated flashpoint of choose-life optimism and shlubby evangelicalism--something the graying, ethics-masticating Watt is still mulling over two decades later. Returning to the site of his Huck and Tom-like first meeting with Boon in a San Pedro park, he notes, "I was quite smitten with him." Throughout the film, as he drives around the hometown, gesturing wildly with both hands off the wheel, Watt gasps diction worthy of his lost friend and their double vision. If phrases like "build dreams" and "become your own person" seem a little hollow to you after years of repetition, they don't to Watt. Reading the lyrics to 1982's What Makes a Man Start Fires? he stops to observe, "They're so bizarre."
Irwin is a semi-pro fan following his heroes' make-art example. At times, his fandom leads him to feel that shaping Watt's opaque discursions would be to rein him in. (Considering the band's warmly avant approach and deep mistrust for received narratives, this doc seems a little too straight-ahead.) And by privileging the reminiscences of an endless army of talking heads, Irwin skimps on context and narrative shape: Foregoing the "jam" in "jam econo," he rarely admits a perspective beyond "Holy shit, they ruled!" Of course, one can hardly be faulted for imperfectly arced dramatic pacing when dealing with a band whose "career" amounted to flooring the gas until they ran off a cliff. (Just working in mentions of all their records is a challenge.) Interchangeable hagiographic rambling has ruined many a worthy rock-doc, but Irwin gets more leeway than most, given the relative paucity of source material. By including roadies and rock critics, family and friends (including John Doe, Richard Hell, and Flea), the sense of democratic sweetness is only deepened. (And, hey--now I know what Joe Carducci looks like.)
Besides, as the cant goes, punk is all about transcended limitations, right? The Minutemen's thunder is unbluntable. When Boon leans into the mic like it's a meal--or leaps into "Paranoid Chant" with its indelible refrain, "Everybody's scared shitless!"--their panicked belief echoes our collapsing present like a tremor no enemy can seal. Today, of course, the most Googleable iteration of "the Minutemen" is the neofascist gang who couldn't shoot straight down in the Arizona desert, priming their puds in prep for the coming border war. And the last twentysomething I heard big-upping Double Nickels turned out to be a Bush voter, one of those newfangled "indie-rock yuppies" we keep hearing about. How could history have laid the Spirit so low? Mike Watt's theory is as good as any: "Things happen."
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