Mudhoney: I’m Now (King Of Hearts Productions)

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 – My Career As A Jerk (MVD Visual)

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.

The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough (MVD Visual)

The Upsetter is a tremendous boon to reggae fans, and also a source of frustration. It offers a rare glimpse of reggae’s golden era (roughly 1967-1980), and one of its giants, Lee “Scratch” Perry, who wrote, performed, or produced some of the genre’s best songs in his famed Black Ark Studios. There’s rare footage galore, which is enough to get fervent fans salivating since there’s such little visual documentation of reggae before the days of camcorders. The footage of Perry at Black Ark is worth the price of admission alone. However, on the flipside, most of the story is told by Perry himself (with additional narration by Benicio Del Toro – a left-field choice to say the least), and besides being a musical genius, Perry is batshit insane. There are subtitles whenever he speaks, but it’s still almost impossible to follow the convoluted maze of words and dense imagery he uses, and listening to him ramble for 90 minutes is draining. Besides, he’s so whacked-out that you wonder how much of what he says is true, and how much is an invention of Scratch’s weed and rum-addled brain (lesson learned: if you want to be taken seriously when you speak, don’t wear a plate of fruit as a hat and dye your beard bright red). I wish the directors had sought out input from the artists that Perry worked with (a list that includes The Clash, Junior Murvin, Paul McCartney, and Bob Marley among literally hundreds of others). It would have gone a long way to make The Upsetter more coherent and informative.
DVD bonus features: Two useless recent clips of Perry clowning around, which are less than two minutes combined.

Dinosaur Jr. – Bug Live At The 9:30 Club: In The Hands Of The Fans (MVD Visual)

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.

The Story Of The Yardbirds (ABC Entertainment)

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”.

The Pixies – LoudQuietLoud: A Film About The Pixies (MVD Visual)

One of the great rock stories of this decade has been the massively successful reformation of The Pixies’ original lineup in 2004. Their influence consistently grew since they broke up in 1992 causing them to get back together and take a lucrative victory lap around the globe. Sounds pretty simple, but thanks to a multitude of unresolved issues it wasn’t. At times the tension between the four band-members is almost unbearable to watch. It’s the kind of tension that would force most people to crack, which happens to drummer David Lovering who has a brief flirtation with drugs and alcohol on the road. The film is an insightful look at the dichotomy of a group that loves the big crowds and paychecks that they can’t get on their own, but it also comprised of four completely different individuals who aren’t comfortable in a room with each other. The good news is that band seem to be getting along well enough to record a new album. Regardless of how that album turns out this DVD is a perfect souvenir for fans that never thought they’d see them on stage together again.

The New York Dolls – All Dolled Up (Music Video Distributors)

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.