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"Punk comes in '76, too, the year we graduated. And what struck us about punk, the big thing about it right off the bat, was that these guys are all weirdos. But they don't care. In fact, they celebrate it. In a lot of ways, this was a perfect scene for us. It was all these misfits."
DVD ReviewIn the late 1970s/early 1980s the rise of the California hardcore scene put a very different spin on what it meant to be punk, as the mohawk-and-safety-pin look so predominant in the UK gave way to an equally primal but less costumed approach to anarchy. There certainly was a uniformity in the comparatively ordinary look amongst bands like Black Flag, The Descendents and The Germs, but it was less calculated and reflected a real roots/garage band sensibility. Even in the throes of a domestic musical uprising, there were still defined lines in which bands were placed.
By 1980 along came a band like The Minutemen to really skew the curve.
The hardcore trio from San Pedro takes center stage in this Tim Irwin documentary chronicling what can best be described as a both meteoric and influential career, a very underground display of angst, energy and intelligence that challenged the accepted norms of the musical genre. It's a look back at a band that was not widely known outside the California hardcore circle, but built a unique niche based on musical honesty that is referred to as "absolute truth with its faults", and Irwin relies solely on talking head interviews (old and new) and archival performance footage to tell the story.
These guys could not have looked any less like what passed for punk at the time, most notably the out-of-character girth and heft of guitarist/vocalist/figurehead D. Boon, the sometimes bearded focal point of the band. Bassist/vocalist Mike Watt, predating the whole grunge look with his flannel-pattern shirts, looked like a lost engineering student, and drummer George Hurley pounded out complex rhythms while whipcracking his head full of curly locks. Visually, the band was a curious looking trio.
The odd lot wasn't just in their look, which wasn't a concept; it was who they were. That comes out not just in the words of D. Boon, Watt and Hurley, but from their contemporaries. They were a punk band not afraid to play songs by "uncool" groups they idolized, like Blue Oyster Cult or Creedence Clearwater Revival. Musically, with songs that often were under a minute, and rarely hit the 02m:30s mark (a length that Watt refers to as an opus for the band), The Minutemen forged new ground by not following genre convention. Irwin's doc is free of narration, and allows Watt, Hurley and a whole host of musicians (including Flea, Henry Rollins, Richard Hell, John Doe), writers, artists, friends, family to piece together the formation of the band, the evolution and the eventual accident that took the life of D. Boon and snuffed out a promising career.
And in between the chronological historical markers pieced together by Irwin comes some amazing live performance footage, spanning 1980 through 1985—all of which are featured in full on Disc 2. The live stuff is really where the frankness of what is described as the band's "headscratchingly provocative" lyrics comes to light. It's easy to hear the songs were not the typical "we hate you, they hate us" hardcore rants, and instead largely focused on world and political issues. As we hear from the band's inner circle, they reinforce that a Minutemen album or live set was really a cumulative event, where each song built on the preceding in some shape or another.
Mike Watt serves as the de facto go to guy for Irwin, and while Hurley contributes, it is very minor by comparison. And the core here are Watt's tour guide recollections of his time with friend/bandmate D. Boon that reveal a mixture of nostalgic memories and a lingering sadness. An interview from 1985 is featured in excerpts throughout, and near the end of the doc has the band discussing their opening slot for the soon-to-hit-it-big R.E.M. It's funny when D. Boon refers to R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe as "Michael Snipe", but as The Minutemen's songwriting and recording had matured dramatically it's easy to imagine what might have happened. Despite a critically successful career post-Minutemen, Watt still seems to carry the scars of that very same what could have been. But what he really shows is what it meant to a true punk. No posing. No uniform. No marketing agenda.
Dare to be different? The Minutemen lived it.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: We Jam Econo comes from Plexifilm in its original 1.33:1 full-frame transfer. The overall print is consistently a bit grainy, with colors that vary slightly, often appearing soft and not particularly bright. Not terribly detrimental for a doc, and certainly presentable, with any flaws really stemming from the quality of the source material.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo that doesn't have much in the way of any depth, but does provide clear, discernible interview segments, which is really 90% of this doc. Some of the archival footage of the live performances have some vocal distortion, but hey, what did you expect from a California punk band?
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
14 Multiple Angles with remote access
19 Deleted Scenes
Not included in my screener copy, but mentioned on the backcover, is a promised 16-page booklet of photos, notes from the filmmaker and liner notes from writer David Rees (Get Your War On). I can't comment on it properly, so your mileage may vary.
Disc 1 carries the feature, which is cut into 19 chapters with optional English or French subtitles. Also included are a trio of very low budget, almost guerilla/art music videos for This Ain't No Picnic (02m:09s), Ack Ack Ack Ack (02m:23s) and King of the Hill (03m:12s), and these obscurities really show off the band's coarse studio chops exceptionally well. The Uncut Bard College Interview (56m:36s) is the full, sometimes meandering chat with the band that is featured sporadically during the documentary, presented here in its entirety. A heaping helping of 19 deleted scenes features an assortment of additional interviews from people like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and REM's Mike Mills, and stories about the making of some of The Minutemen videos. The final section is called The Copy Songs, and features a pair of acoustic covers of two of the band's favorites: Blue Oyster Cult's The Red and the Black (03m:54s) and Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River (02m:03s).
Over on Disc 2 are three rather disparate live sets, kicking off with The Starwood: 1980 (18m:03s), a fourteen-song show that runs less than twenty minutes. Now that's econo. The angle option is available for use here, offering the chance to see the band from a couple of different viewpoints. As with all three live clips on Disc 2, the video quality is a bit rough, sometimes blurry, but it's rare material nonetheless. The Starwood set consists of:
Swing to the Right
Joe McCarthy's Ghost
Sickles and Hammers
The 9:30 Club: 1984a (58m:01s) set presents 37 songs in 58 minutes, and shows the band exhibiting more experimental maturity than during the Starwood clip. This is really The Minutemen at their live peak, with a set that captures their difficult to categorize minimalist wall of sound and a fairly deep punk ideology. Here's the 9:30 Club set list:
Jam While George Fixes Drums
Working Men Are Pissed
Ack Ack Ack Ack
Life As a Rehearsal
Beacon Sighted Through Fog
The Only Minority
Mutiny in Jonestown
Maybe Partying Will Help
Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing
The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts
Mr. Robot's Holy Orders
One Reporter's Opinion
God Bows to Math
Please Don't Be Gentle With Me
Joe McCarthy's Ghost
Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs
This Ain't No Picnic
There Ain't Shit on TV Tonight
Dream Told By Moto
I Felt Like a Gringo
Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?
Little Man With a Gun in His Hand
Disc 2 concludes with the Acoustic Blowout: 1985 (21m:15s) performance, with D.Boon and Mike Watt manically strumming acoustic guitars while George Hurley bitch slaps some bongos. This was a real poke in the eye to the punk scene, another daring move by the band to push the accepted limits of what they were supposed to be and how they were supposed to look. The set includes:
I Felt Like a Gringo
Ack Ack Ack Ack
History Lesson Part II
Little Man With a Gun in His Hand
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe moral ethic of punk, at its most base level, frowned on conformity, and was rooted in musical rebellion. Labels and looks eventually defined distinct marketing directives, and sadly the lines of demarcation became the very thing the movement rose against. A brief glimmer of intelligence as part of the California punk movement, The Minutemen dared to be different.
Tim Irwin's historical doc of the band's shooting star impact on what it meant to be punk is full of the same kinetic energy as The Minutemen's music, and in the process brings to mind a "what if" of where they could have gone had an accident not cut their career short.
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