The market for niche music product must be bigger than I thought. How else do you explain recent biographical DVDs from cult acts like The Circle Jerks, The Monks, Big Star, Rodriguez, and Mudhoney? As a fan of these and other under-appreciated bands, it’s great to see their stories getting the treatment usually reserved for mega-successful acts, but in the case of Mudhoney: I’m Now both the story and how it’s told are a little too familiar. Co-Directors Ryan Short and Adam Pease are clearly big fans, but the combination of talking head interviews and archival footage has been done a million times before, so even when someone as entertaining as Keith Morris (Black Flag/Circle Jerks/OFF!) or Thurston and Kim from Sonic Youth show up to praise Mudhoney it’s more expected than exciting, thanks to their appearance in so many other DVDs chronicling underground music. How cliche has this Behind The Music-style form of storytelling become? So cliche that when Mark Arm discusses his drug addiction he mentions all the cliche ways in which drug addiction is handled in music documentaries. If you’ve read books like Grunge Is Dead, Everybody Loves Our Town, or any of the countless articles written about grunge, then you already know pretty much everything about the band that the movie tells you. The movie also misses a few key detours that might have proved interesting – instead of spending so much time rehashing old news why not spend time on their many side-projects, or Mark Arm’s stint with the reunited MC5, or digging a little deeper into their influences…etc. It’s shortcomings like these that limit I’m Now’s appeal to Mudhoney die-hards.
The Circle Jerks’s story gets the documentary treatment from director Dave Markey (best known for 1991: The Year Punk Broke). Archival footage, band interviews and testimonials all give the history of a band who released one of hardcore punk’s greatest albums (Group Sex), but never really knew what to do over the next thirty years. While the oldest footage shows The Circle Jerks at their jaw-dropping primal best, for me the most enjoyable part of the movie is those lean years in the late-’80s and early-’90s when the band put out awful albums while cycling through band members, musical styles, and personal issues. Perhaps there isn’t anything all that special in the Circle Jerks’ story to warrant the 96-minute runtime it’s been given, but the experiences of bands in the pre-Nirvana American Underground are entertaining enough that you can overlook the film’s weaker spots. Speaking of entertaining, Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris is at his nervous/intense self-reflective best in his interviews here. How he hasn’t been tapped for some kind of TV/film/radio work is a mystery to me. Even if it’s not perfect, if you love the old days of hardcore punk, My Career As A Jerk is a joy to watch.
Bonus features: Deleted scenes and interviews. Trailers.
This is an appealing concept: Dinosaur Jr. performing Bug in its entirety at DC’s 9:30 Club (one of the best venues on the East Coast) filmed by six mega-fans. The first thing you’ll notice is how tight the band sounds and how well the DVD captures that sound. Seriously, forget about live shows…most bands would kill to sound this crisp in the studio! J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph look a lot older since Bug came out in 1988 (Mascis in particular looks like Gandalf’s beer-drinking younger brother) but they’ve retained every ounce of their youthful energy and love of high-volume dynamics. Everyone in the band does their part to make the songs sound great: Murph is a strong drummer, and Barlow plays the affable indie-punk on bass, but for me the biggest treat is watching Mascis’ solos which are fluid and full of technique, despite their “thank god for earplugs” volume. Having never had the opportunity to see Dinosaur Jr. live for myself, I can only imagine the kind of air-moving effect the band must have had in a club like the 9:30.
You might remember that Bug was only thirty-two minutes long, which would be pretty skimpy for a concert, and a bad value for a DVD purchase. Well, for starters there’s a two song non-Bug encore (“Sludgefeast” and “Raisans”), and another two songs from the same show included as bonus features. There’s also a twenty-minute interview segment with Mascis, Murph and Barlow talking to Henry Rollins, which is an interesting experiment (Rollins interviewed them prior to each night’s show on the East Coast leg of the Bug tour) but also awkward since Mascis, by all accounts Dinosaur Jr’s leader, doesn’t say much. Rollins shouldn’t take it personally though: he doesn’t talk much during the concert either, preferring to follow the teachings of Aerosmith and “let the music do the talking”. There’s also a backstage interview with the six fans who shot the concert, a clip of Henry Rollins talking about the history of The 9:30 Club, and an interview with J (who, yet again, barely says anything) and director Dave Markey, who shares interesting stories from the band’s past. Well done.
This excellent documentary covers the quick rise and even quicker fall of The Yardbirds from 1963-1968. The band’s history hasn’t been rehashed as frequently as their peers, so the information presented here – taken from interviews with band members, managers and producers – feels fresh and exciting. The DVD also benefits from excellent live clips, which show the band’s origins as a merely OK blues-rock band, but then really catching fire when Jeff Beck replaced Eric Clapton on guitar and pushed them into a more aggressive and experimental sound (compare the version of “I Wish You Would” with Clapton to the one with Beck…Beck’s kills). When Jeff Beck left and Jimmy Page took over, the band gained an even better guitar player, but Page was actually too good, running circles around the rest of the band, who struggled to keep up with him. When they broke up in 1968 Page was already experimenting with some of the ideas that would later become the foundation for Led Zeppelin. Still, don’t let rock history paint The Yardbirds as just a starting-point for three great guitar players – The Story Of The Yardbirds proves they were a great, and highly influential, band in their own right. The only negative is the lame booklet which talks mostly about the recently reformed Yardbirds (who aren’t mentioned in the movie) and the back cover where “For Your Love” is erroneously listed as “For The Love”.
In an age when Franz Ferdinand puts out a two-disc DVD set after only two albums, it’s easy to forget how little footage exists of the great performers of rock’s past, and that’s what makes this DVD such a revelation. Culled from over forty hours shot by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen on an early black and white video camera, All Dolled Up includes some great live performances, interviews, candid backstage footage, and a lot of preening in front of mirrors.
Although the video and audio are far from pristine, this is still an important release for Dolls fans. Because Gruen was friends with the band, he had full access to film them at all times, capturing the true essence of a band that most people have never seen much of outside of a few photos. He captures the drunken buffoonery, the backstage groupies and, most hilariously, the looks of outrage the band got from “straight society”.
The bonus features don’t disappoint either. You can watch the performances from the film in an unedited form, an interview between Bob Gruen and Dictators singer Handsome Dick Manitoba, look at Gruen’s photos of the band with accompanying commentary, and see Gruen, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen doing a commentary track. All in all, it’s a handsome package and kudos to Music Video Distributors for putting out yet another important piece of American rock history.