Rock Docs: Films Speak Truth To Human Condition

What drives us to churn our human condition into a song? Life’s twists and turns have long been the inspiration for verse. Each of the poets on this page shared a passion for rock-and-roll music. Each sought to break free from their own–often tumultuous–lives through their music. The lives shared in these films have brushes with fame and tragedy in equal portions. All were labeled “punks.” They were rebels and non-conformists–and they rallied others to that cause. In their stories you find gritty realness, unbridled ambition, and occasional glimpses of Truth.

We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen
(Tim Irwin, 2005)

Their story begins like some Hollywood kid feature. The chunky nerd-of-a-boy falls out of a tree and lands on the neighborhood new boy–a tough, bully-lookin’ kid. Of course the two become best friends. That’s just how D. Boon and Mike Watt began their friendship. Boon’s mom bought the boys instruments to keep them out of trouble (it worked).

They had no training, but they had records to learn from. Boon sang and played guitar; Mike attacked the bass; they enlisted Boon’s brother Joe to play drums. They started with covers, but ultimately developed a groove of their own. They landed on a bill with a bunch of misfit bands–one of these was Black Flag.

Later, with the addition of George Hurley on drums, they hit their stride with power-packed sets of brief, high energy rants and raves which weaved across stylistic boundaries. The Minutemen jammed econo. They didn’t care about fame. They just loved to play.

By 1985 The Minutemen were gaining national attendion. Plans for their next recording were just getting underway when D. Boon was killed in a car accident.

The film captures their spirit and indeed the freedom they found in music. Mike Watt narrates much of this DVD which includes interviews with many well-known musicians who drew inspiration from The Minutemen.

X: The Unheard Music
(W.T. Morgan,1986)

How does one define X? They had great stage names: John Doe, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bonebrake. Their sound…think Johnny Cash and June Carter backed by Green Day. The poetic nature of the band attracted Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek to produce their first album.

The Unheard Music captures a moment in time in the L.A. music scene when the Whiskey-A-Go-Go was THE place to be heard. The Unheard Music demonstrates how “punk” and “underground music” of the late 70’s and early 80’s was just a re-working of other American music forms. In the case of X you had rockabilly, blues and honky tonk intermeshed with Charles Bukowski-esque lyrics.

The Unheard Music speaks context into the life of this seminal rock outfit: the politics of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, their dire financial situation, and the L.A. music scene. While X more recently has morphed into the throwback outfit, The Knitters–The Unheard Music speaks to the human condition out of which some brutally truthful tales were told. X is music worth being heard (and in this case of this film, seen).

Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart
(Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1988)

Lou Reed began his career in the mid-1960’s writing novelty pop tunes for Pickwick Records. That’s where he met John Cale. They formed Velvet Underground and were taken under wing by Andy Warhol. In 1970 Reed goes solo. He teams up with members of the band Yes for his first album. For Transformer, his second, David Bowie assists. Reed has been transforming ever since. He is a poet and artist with a deep spiritual side (which he recently revealed in an interview with Elvis Costello). He is a man with incredible street sensibility and a rock and roll heart.

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
(Jim Fields & Michael Gramaglia, 2003)

The Ramones brought a style and attitude that defined a moment in time. Like The Minutemen, these guys were childhood friends. They emerged from the gritty New York City streets that Lou Reed loves to sing about. They were distinctly American and like X garnered the attendion of an iconic producer (in their case Phil Spector) for one of their albums. They inspired many U.S and English punk bands including The Clash. Their story isn’t pretty; but it is told well in this documentary.

The Future is Unwritten: Joe Strummer
(Julien Temple, 2007)

Born in Turkey in 1952 to a Scottish nurse and British diplomat, Joe Strummer spent his youth growing up on the streets of Mexico City, Cairo and Bonn. Failing in college and struggling to get his art career off the ground–the one place Strummer found success was as an R&B singer. Everything changed when he met some blokes at a Sex Pistols show who wanted him in their band. The Clash blended up punk with Reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms for a unique sound that would garner them and Strummer worldwide attention.

I encourage you to check out these stories and the music of some of these artists. Their music is the rightful compliment to these films.

Originally written by Matthew Hundley for CRITIQUE a publication of Ransom Fellowship ©2009.

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