January 17, 2013

Convenient Truths -- COLOR ME OBSESSED

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's Color Me Obsessed, directed by Gorman Bechard.
SacksThe Replacements were one of the greatest bands of the 1980s, a brilliant combination of four complicated and difficult personalities that produced amazing music, often in spite of themselves. Whether you start with their earlier and more raucous albums – and the 'Mats at their best were really amazingly raucous – or with their mid-career masterpieces "Tim" and "Let It Be," Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars and the Stinson brothers embodied a snotty, who-gives-a-shit attitude that embodied the punk rock ethos while being thoroughly, completely, their own thing.
And this attitude was also what caused the band's downfall. When you don't give a shit about all kinds of aspects of your life, you start to lose track of the important things. You allow your impulsiveness to control your brain and for your own flaws to cause success to never really happen for you.
It was inevitable for someone to make a documentary about the fascinating career of the 'Mats, and thanks to Gorman Bechard's Kickstarter project, we now have a documentary about the band. And like the 'Mats themselves, this doc is promising and intriguing at times and frequently exciting. But also like the 'Mats themselves, this doc is frustrating and annoying at times and frequently seems to stumble when it could really thrive.
Bechard and his crew did a tremendous amount of work creating this documentary, interviewing some 140 different people who offer their comments about the band. Among those speaking are Grant Hart and Greg Norton from fellow Minneapolis band Hüsker Dü, Tommy Ramone, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, the members of the Goo Goo Dolls, brilliant music journalists Robert Cristgau and Legs Malone, actors Dave Foley and George Wendt, reporter David Carr of The New York Times and even Bob Stinson's ex-wife.
Color Me Obsessed amounts to an oral history of The Replacements, with one major exception: none of the surviving band members (Bob died in 1995 at age 34) appear in the film. This creates a giant hole in the middle of the movie. Because their close friends and confidantes can talk intimately about the band's experiences, we get a good portrait of what happened throughout the band's tumultuous history. But, of course, the story could have been much more intimate, intense and personal if Bechard had been able to get Westerberg, Stinson and Mars to talk.
The other giant flaw in this movie is that we don't get to hear one single note of any Replacements songs as they're discussed. We see fans and critics talk about many important 'Mats songs, as you might expect, but we never get an underdub that allows us to hear those songs. I'm sure that as a Kickstarter project with a limited budget, the creators had problems clearing the music rights, but it's a thoroughly glaring omission that really takes a lot of joy away from what could and should have been a thrilling celebration of a great band.
Elkin, you and I both share a deep and intense passion for the 'Mats. Did you feel like the positive aspects of Color Me Obsessed was a celebration of your passion for the band, or did the limitations just frustrate you too much?
Elkin: Was watching this documentary a celebratory or frustrating event for me? I'm going gray here and saying both, as that is the punk rock thing to do.
As you said, Sacks, The Replacements inspire a deep, deep passion for me, and what I loved about this film was getting to listen to a bunch of folk talk about their deep, deep passion for this band. It was kind of a hunker in the bunker and swap stories kind of thing, wasn't it? And some of the stories were great. As someone said in the film, “It's fun to be one of the people who knows.”
I mean, you had to “get” The Replacements to “love” The Replacements.  You had to have a slice of the “weirdo pie” to openly declare that The Replacements were one of your favorite bands. And you and me and a whole mess of other folks were part of that pie. So it was great to listen to the stories and, as I lived in Minneapolis from 1992 to 1997, to see shots of some of my old hangouts (big props to the 7th Street Entry!).
But, like you, I wanted some fucking music to dance to. Don't get me wrong, it's great to hang out with a bunch of people and tell stories about your favorite band, but at some point during that party somebody has to put on an album so we can all start careening off the walls, right?
I mean, this was a band that did this and this – in order to get the full effect of this band, you gotta play the music, man. When you and I and Shawn Hill wrote our review of Bluewater's Milestones of Art Series awhile back, I wrote the following:
a book about an artist that does not provide examples of that artist's art is like a recording of an interview with a musician without playing any of his or her music -- it's possible, it could be interesting, but ultimately it seems to me that it lessens some of the impact of the piece.
And that's what we got here. The Replacements' music, as the film points out, was a “glorious mess” as much as it was “music for humans.” Not getting to hear some of it while watching the film kinda undercut that whole thing.
This is a documentary for people who are already fans of the band. It's a Replacements circle-jerk. Not that is necessarily an entirely bad thing, mind you, but I wonder if Gorman Bechard could look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied.
Sacks: Yeah, that's exactly it, Ekin. I loved hearing all the stories that everyone had to tell about the band, but so much of the movie felt empty, without a center, without any real impact. Sure, I could have grabbed my old CDs or pulled the 'Mats up on Spotify, but isn't that part of the job of the documentarian to shape our experiences, to give viewers context, to help us to get a deeper sense of the material that is being presented in the film?
I'm in my 40s, and probably most of the people who watch this movie are around that same age. The Replacements didn't last past 1990, which means that anyone who was a fan of the band during their heyday is more or less the same age as me. And all of us have commitments and lives that have moved us away from listening to our favorite rock bands every day. Much as I loved the 'Mats music back in the day – and I played them all the time on my college radio show, at parties, when driving around delivering pizzas for Domino's – the memory of all those great songs has faded a bit in my mind, as memories do. Particularly memories that are attached with events in which drugs and alcohol were involved.
So I, like a lot of fans, have lost some of the context of the 'Mats. My memories of them and of my 20s are fading from mind. Hearing the stories shared by fans and loved ones of the band was a real treat – a bit like a friendly reunion with people with whom I'd have loved to spend time back in the day, tossing back cheap beer in order to get drunk as quickly as I could. It gave me context, brought back some of my memories and even helped set a few memories in the proper order for me – I was at both the "we're sorry, Portland" show and the show that the band played on the "Don't Tell a Soul" tour, which was one of the most amazing concerts I've ever attended.
This documentary does a good job of providing that context, of doing a nice clean sequential history of this amazing band. But so much of the rest of the context is missing. When everyone was describing the beginning of "Hootenany," the movie cried out for just a few bars of music from that song. When one of the people discussed how they hated the cover of "Tim," the movie needed to show that cover rather than forcing me to Google it to refresh my memory. And when the movie discussed the way that Paul Westerberg lurked outside of the band members' windows for several days before asking to join the bad, wouldn't it have been great to hear that story from one of the musicians?
I feel like an asshole complaining about this movie when Gorman Bechard has obviously invested so much of his time, money, energy and resources in this movie that obviously is very important to him. I really enjoyed some aspects of this movie, but ultimately the hole at its center makes this movie a disappointment for me.
Elkin: I agree with you, Sacks. Who would have thought that we would have been disappointed by a documentary about The Replacements? But it was a disappointment, wasn't it?
Sure, there were some nice touches in the film. I especially liked how Bechard put the 'Mats record sales in context with the most popular releases of the times, and I also liked how he juxtaposed each interviewee with a picture of themselves from the time period, and of course there were the tales themselves. But this was a second hand story in a second hand film and, given the nature of the subject, it SHOULD have been so much more.
The Replacements' music helped define my high school and college years. They brought solace, energy, and clarity to me during those turbulent times. Color Me Obsessed does a good job of focusing on that aspect of the story, but it provides no opportunity for access to the source of that jive.
Luckily there's the Internet and we can get there ourselves.
Trailer for the film:

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