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Wednesday, April 1, 2009
So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Flop
There’s nothing more boring than watching a documentary about a wildly popular rock band patting each other’s balls, pretending to be humble and thrilling their billions of sheep-like fans. The most recent offenders have been Wilco (dull), The Pixies (smug), Flaming Lips (not funny), and Radiohead (overrated). Actually, the best films I’ve seen in recent memory have been documentaries about the losers of rock ‘n roll. These films are infused with more drama than a million Nicole Kidman blockbusters, and damn if they have anything to be proud about. Here’s my favorite rock flop flicks:
1. New York Doll – Arthur Kane, bassist of the New York Dolls, is more heroic as a born-again Mormon clerk at the West LA temple than he ever was in his previous incarnation as skanky glam rocker. Waiting for the Number 4 bus on Santa Monica Blvd, Arthur perpetually pines for one last New York Dolls reunion. The opportunity finally arrives, courtesy of Morrisey (!) and Arthur demonstrates more wisdom than his other bandmates, appearing almost saint-like with his humility, a far cry from the old Mercer Arts Center days. Shortly after the reunion show Kane passed away, his wish finally granted by the powers that be. This one had a happy ending.
2. Derailroaded – Wild Man Fischer became the stuff of legend in the Psychedelic Sixties standing in front of the Whiskey A Go-Go selling his songs for a dime. Frank Zappa made the dubious decision to record a full-length album of his singing, his songs sounding very much like bad nursery rhymes with banal lyrics. His delivery, of course, is the creep factor, all ex-mental institution manic with shrieks that sound like a cat getting gutted. All through the film we hear testimonies from family members and musical colleagues about being attacked or threatened by Wild Man. Even Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo weighs in on the genius of Wild Man Fischer. We’re not convinced.
3. Won’t Anybody Listen? – Midwest transplants NC-17 attempt to conquer Hollywood with their dazzling tunes. We see them wowing crowds at The Coconut Teaszer where bands are herded like so much cattle (20 Bands a Nite for Only Five Dollars!), and that’s the focus of the film: while the band grouses about how the record industry won’t recognize them for being the true geniuses that they are, their complaints are intercut with A&R executives (including ex-Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham! So much for socialism!) explaining how hard it is for bands to score a record deal, and even when they do, they’re so deep in debt they won’t turn a profit for another six years. When we see NC-17 finally perform we hear music so directionless it’s easy to see why they’ve been passed up by the major labels. I guess being “Star Search” finalists added up to zilch!
4. Dig! – The “Citizen Kane” of rock flop flicks, where we see the Brian Jonestown Massacre crush under the weight of their incorrigibly annoying leader, Anton Newcombe, who keeps drooling about a “revolution” his band is leading, but the only revolution to be seen in the film is the band mutinying against him resulting in interminable punch-ups every five minutes like sex in a porn film. When you think it couldn’t get any more annoying, you’ll see Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols contrive a phony WWF-type rivalry with the BJ Massacre. The only person he truly pisses-off is fashion photographer David LaChapelle, who’s ten times the artist The Dandy Warhols will ever be. The BJ Massacre is still together and kicking each other’s balls on stage. Take a tip from me: their shows aren’t first-date material unless your date’s a dominatrix.
5. You’re Gonna Miss Me – Roky Erickson, leader of the 13th Floor Elevators, wrote some great songs: Fire Engine, You’re Gonna Miss Me, Two-Headed Dog, etc. His documentary focuses on the custody battle between his mother Evelyn and his brother. His mother’s eccentric in a “Grey Gardens” way, gluing family pictures to her wall like a scrapbook, and his brothers allude to possibly being molested by their stoic father. After all is said and done Roky still has the ability to move you with his amazing singing, whether it’s Buddy Holly’s “Starry Eyes” or his “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. SPOILER: His brother Sumner gets custody in the end, but Roky of course returns to Mama and the safe womb of his bedroom watching Powerpuff Girls cartoons.
Other documentaries that didn’t zing my tweeter as much was the Townes Van Zandt doc (okay, he was a manic depressive, so what?), the Nick Drake movie, where his sister confesses to putting him down all the time, wonder where the depression came from?, and that Rodney Bingenheimer nightmare movie. After I saw that one I yelled at my wife for hours!
But I’m just nursing sour grapes, I’ll confess. I want my own rock flop flick, where I’m the star of my own movie where people see me going to work every day and not rocking out at The Hollywood Palladium and The Roxy anymore, and all my ex-bandmates talking about what a fucking prick I am. I want to be the coolest music failure in the history of rock cinema. That would be hotter than a million Oscars.