Crash test: "What We Do Is Secret" plays Noise Pop's film festival.

Noise Pop Film Festival

Dennis Harvey February 26, 2008

You might think the Bay Area has just about every kind of film festival, from Irish to Icelandic, from sex workers to surfing to Buddhist. But there’s one seemingly obvious candidate that missing: A music film festival. Oh sure, almost every festival invariably includes some music-centered titles. Mill Valley, SF Indie and SF Docfest are often particularly heavy on them. Luckily for fans of alternative rock, punk, and folk-pop, Noisepop is a multimedia affair.

Once again this year, in addition to practically every extant band you’d want to see (headliners including British Sea Power, Magnetic Fields, Fu Manchu, Quasi and The Mountain Goats), an art exhibit (featuring a contribution from Yoko Ono), comedy shows, and ever-so-much-more, there are movies.

Afraid there might be even one regional corner of the late ’70s through mid-‘80s punk/hardcore scene that is under-documented? Of course you are! Helping allay those fears is Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman’s You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984. Actually, I was there—at least in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where a lot of these bands toured. But while some of the names may remain familiar to me from a thousand D.I.Y.. handbills on telephone poles, it’s likely Naked Raygun, Effigies, Articles of Faith, Strike Under, Subverts and others will be a fresh archaeological dig for many.

For me, it was nostalgic in more ways than one: It’s amazing how you can completely erase from your memory a detail as odd as the fact that for years, mainstream rockers would yell “Devo!â€? at punkers. (When, of course, they weren’t yelling “Faggot!â€? I remember a bar band in my home town actually playing a song by Billy Idol, then excusing this toe-dip into alien musical terrain by saying “He writes some good songs…even if he is a faggot.â€? Tolerance, West Michigan Style, circa 1984!) The irony of longhairs ragging on shorthaired punks when a half-generation earlier longhairs would’ve been harassed by crewcuts was, of course, lost on them.

Anyway, the exhaustive (at over two hours) You Weren’t There captures a familiar arc in U.S. punk scenes of the era: At first open and diverse (in fact many early venues were off-night gay bars, since no one else would book punk shows), then increasingly rigid and unpleasant as the “asshole factorâ€? crept in. By 1985 the scene was dead, at least to all but angry suburban white boys wanting a “big knucklehead slugfestâ€? to orthodox hardcore sounds that ran from A to B.

Not living long enough to see that happen was Darby Crash, leader of L.A. notorious seminal punk unit The Germs, and a drug-overdose suicide in 1980. The splashy narrative feature of the festival is Rodger Grossman’s What We Do Is Secret, which charts the band’s brief life and times. Shane West plays the charismatic Crash, a confessed “fascistâ€? who duly got the Germs attention by cutting himself onstage, trashing clubs and other antics. It’s an entertaining flashback of the Sid and Nancy variety that the surviving Germs themselves have embraced — inviting West to front their decades-later reunion tour.

Another late cult icon is given a nonfiction memorial in Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides, a portrait of the massive 6’6â€? Chicago African American and diagnosed schizophrenic who heard “demonâ€? voices and had psychotic episodes. Yet he was also a naturally gifted drawer of meticulous ink cityscapes, and incessant composer of eccentric songs that began attracting a following in the early 90s.

While some accused his audience (at least part of it) of unkind “let’s laugh at the nutjobâ€? voyeurism, others genuinely appreciated his usually gentle nature and delight in performing. By his 2003 death from leukemia he’d recorded over 1000 songs. Somewhat better crafted than 2003’s The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a prior documentary about him, Joy Rides goes as far as featuring some simple animation of his drawings to convey his unique artistic perspective.

Such Hawks, Such Hounds
is a survey of what these days is frequently called “stoner rockâ€?—though few of the relevant musicians appreciate that term. It starts out running through 70s forebears both famous (Led Zep, Blue Cheer, Sabbath) and not (Sir Lord Baltimore, Fatso Jetson, Pentagram), then touching on 80s “punk-metal hybridsâ€? from Metallica to the Meat Puppets.

But primary emphasis here is on later, post-grunge bands like Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Nebula, Comets on Fire and so forth, all of whom both have ’70s retro aspects while simultaneously expanding the boundaries of “heavyâ€? music. One fun thing here is a segment about everyone’s day-jobs, ranging from househusband (wife brings home the bacon) to housepainter. The point being that while these units all have their fanatical fans, they’re still too far off the popular radar to make a living at it.

On the silly side of obsession fandom, Christopher Nelson’s Toypunks, Vol. 1 focuses on the bridge between collectors/creators of both punk-rock and pop culture errata—particularly the one that stretches between America and Japan. The subjects here often started in the ’70s (or whenever their more-recent youths were) collecting toy action figures from the other side of the Pacific. Then many grew up to form punk bands (like Japanese “horror punk sensationâ€? Balzac, who pray at the altar of The Misfits) and/or create their own design labels for punk/pop-culture inspired toys, clothes, skateboards, tattoos, et al. “Punk rock is vitamins for the heartâ€? says one such Japanese entrepreneur. This 40-minute documentary plays with Nick’s World of Synthesizers, Eve Wood’s similarly sub-feature-length portrait of homemade-synth inventor Nick Collier.

Last but not at all least, comedian Jamie Kennedy and director Michael Addis’ takes a fascinating, good-humored look at a territory that’s not strictly musical, but which every musician or other performer can relate to: The usually drunk loudmouth who feels compelled to contribute such insights as “You suck!â€? to your public artistic life. They interview everyone from rappers to rockers to Ron Jeremy, Criss Angel and widely dissed film director Uwe Boll (who challenged his critics to boxing rounds—and stomped them). Plus lots of stand-up comics, who seem to get (and sometimes dish out) the worst abuse of all.Heckler

drifts semi-off-topic by dwelling too long on actual professional critics and reviewers, a subject that deserves its own movie but fits oddly alongside confrontations with heckling frat boys and insulting wanna-be-Harry Knowles bloggers. Still, itÕs a star-studded, often hilarious depiction of everyday jerks on the loose.