The old rock-fan argument over who came first is almost always about more than just who: If you're arguing between the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, for instance, the real issue isn't who so much as how and why. "Originality" in rock is largely a matter of authenticity—which in turn is a matter of tenacity and transcendence in the face of suffering. Were the youth of England more disenfranchised than the youth of America in the mid-'70s? How decisively did the kids in these countries transform their oppression into a vindictive sneer—that is, into genuine punk?
At least three of the rock docs in this year's Sound Unseen explore musical authenticity in relation to time and place. In High Tech Soul (screening at Bryant-Lake Bowl, August 19 and 23), director Gary Bredow endeavors to define techno as the creation of inner-city Detroit residents seeking escape from poverty. Thing is, the scene's main innovators—Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May—were actually middle-class kids hoping to distance themselves from Detroit's violent reputation. (The Bellville Three were, after all, named for the suburb where they grew up.) The film shies away from the fact that its heroes came from the safety of the 'burbs, though it does explain that fellow DJ Eddie Fowlkes was dismissed by his peers for running credit card scams to buy gear.
Detroit—long bearing the loss of factory jobs to automation, the flight of white people to the suburbs, and the impact of the 12th Street riot of 1967—did offer the two things that techno needed in order to gestate: abandoned warehouses and teenagers who listened to equal amounts of Sly Stone and Kraftwerk. That the DJs stayed through the city's sluggish revival and their own worldwide success is a testament to the community they built. "We hate the city but we love the city," says May.
While the Burgeoning Scene is always a heartwarming story, the Town Outcast makes for an even better one. If a powerful element of the rock star mystique is a lack of understanding from the general public, then hometown scoffers can be more valuable to a band than a record deal. Even one of the talking heads in High Tech Soul marvels at the fact that international DJs aren't recognized on the streets of Detroit the way guitar-slingers are. (To which I counter: The guy behind the turntables never gets the same spotlight as the guy behind the mic.)
Another metropolis appears in flux in Downtown Locals (BLB, August 18 and 20). With New York pursuing a "higher quality of life" under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, even subway busking is undergoing gentrification. A program called Music Under New York holds annual auditions, and the selected performers receive permits and scheduled timeslots in the transit system's choice locations. "There's one amendment that permits you to be here. There are a dozen or more rules in the city of New York to get rid of you," says officer Victor Cretella—and he's one of the friendlier law enforcers. The film's subjects are common undergrounders—junkies, crazies, immigrants, street-savvy smooth talkers, and office drones-turned-performance artists—who've learned to romanticize poverty from the city itself. Not surprisingly, the new bureaucratic program rejects most of them. As if living on dimes and quarters wasn't hard enough, the artists must come to terms with the idea that they're no longer good enough to perform in the last place that would take them. Instead, the platforms are occupied by more acceptable acts—"white girls with violins," one permit-less musician notes.
Downtown Locals is somewhat depressing, not because it features artists who refuse to give up on their dreams, but because it's painfully obvious that some of them should. The metallic squeal and shudder of trains roaring beneath the interviews—about wished-for record deals, hopes of becoming a big-time producer, and the thought that next year's judges might be won over with the help of a new monkey puppet—provide a constant reminder that in a city of perpetual motion, these people are going nowhere.
Strangely, if anyone could use that sort of confidence and drive, it's the punk pioneers in Wasted Orient (BLB, August 18). Joyside are the alcoholic, poverty-stricken frontrunners in China's just-sprouting punk scene. (One member is seen adding whiskey to his ramen.) Since the scene is still in its early stages of development, its magnitude is unforeseen, but the life sure seems lonely. During the course of their tour, Joyside's members sometimes talk about how there are more punk bands in China now than there were five years ago. But if other such bands are playing the same bills, we never see them. In one city, director Kevin Fritz talks to a couple of fans about what the band means to them ("Joyside is my god" is one answer), and on another occasion he catches some clandestine groupie scheming. But it's always hard to gauge sincerity when there's a camera present.
Still, if there's one thing that Wasted Orient teaches (in addition to the Chinese idiom for "awesome" that translates to "cow pussy"), it's that it doesn't take much more than amplified anger and the illusion of chaos to rile up a young crowd. Not 10 minutes into the documentary, drummer Fan Bo admits that Chinese rock 'n' roll is no different from anyone else's. The simple lyrics, sung in English, are only slightly less decipherable than Johnny Rotten's slurs. Vocalist Bian Yuan regularly ends up on the floor, either because he has jumped into the crowd or fallen off the stage. Plus, they've got the blood, piss, and vomit part down cold.
But the self-destruction defines their lives more than the music does. When they open their mouths, it's usually to belch, not to make grand political statements. For all their mention of China's conservative ways and the fact that most people don't understand them, Joyside never lash out at their homeland. Whether due to a longstanding cultural tradition of respect or sheer apathy, the band does nothing to promote change. Their greatest demand is "I Want Beer," and given that they spend more time brandishing bottles than their instruments, it would appear that they get what they want. Throughout Wasted Orient, the musicians describe rock 'n' roll as "useless," "boring," "unnecessary." They've given up before they've even had a chance to show the world how bad they've had it. What's punk about that?
Also in this Sound Unseen package:
Righteous Babes, Old Joys, Sound Unseen is a nostalgist's toyland by Rob Nelson
What Remains Of Us, 'Old Joy' finds hope within a dying tradition by Amy Taubin
Living Like a Monk, How Minnesota musicians revived '60s rockers the Monks by Peter S. Scholtes