Wednesday, January 20, 2016

LA Invasion: Two Rock and Roll Biopics

I've been checking out some movies and music on dad schedule, that is, years after they've appeared. There's been a couple of films about the L.A. music scene of the 1970's that I found to be pretty good:  What We Do Is Secret and The Runaways.  LA was a different animal than the Manchester of Control and 24 Hour Party People-  it's of course richer, sunnier, and more surface.

I dug LA bands when I was a kid-  there was a lot more creativity there than people give credit for, a pretty diverse scene all around.  Black Flag, 45 Grave, the Paisley Underground, the Gun Club, and many more, LA from 1977-1985 had a lot going on. And you could read about it in early 'zine culture- I always preferred LA's Flipside to San Francisco's Maximum Rock and Roll. Thus, I took the time to check these two films out.

I liked WWDIS, but not for the reasons that a lot of people will. What I enjoy about WWDIS is how it's shot like an ABC Afterschool Special- real talky, paced in 5-6 minute increments, rather dopey emotionalism,  and a kind of innocence even in the dirt. The style fits well for a movie that is fundamentally about high-school lockerroom-level tribalism. If there's a theme to the film, it's about scenensterism, or more appropriately, scene queening.  The sheer amount of in-group status jockeying throughout Darby Crash's project of "Five Years" to become what drummer Don Bolles called the "new Jesus-Hitler-L.Ron Hubbard Leper Messiah" is  unrelenting.  Literally up to moments before Darby's death, his crowd is constantly resetting in-group boundaries and keeping the not-hip-enough at bay.  Throughout the film, his Circle One bluffs their way into being the hippest scene in LA because they say they are, to the point where the owner of the legendary Masque club gets cowed into letting his club get destroyed by the Circle crew who utter the magic words "you don't get it".  Back in the day, you had to get a Germs Burn to roll with this crew.

In particular, much of the drama, tragedy, and sympathy for Crash keeps getting undercut by him and his crew flashing what Camille Paglia calls the Elvis-Lord Byron Aristocratic Sneer.In scene after scene, the insiders delight in keeping others who thought they were cool but aren't out of bounds. Darby's self-satisfied lip curl is Peak Scenester.  Rather being a wink to his crowd-or the audience- it's a wink to himself, as if it's all a cosmic joke.  By the time he offs himself-after taking time to blow off Boles so he doesn't interfere with his frame  for his pre-planned grand finale, I didn't feel sorry for him at all.

The supposed source of whatever insecurity that Crash has in the movie is supposed to be his closet gayness, but really it's his constant need to stay on top of his scene.  The last third of the film shows his hip Hollywood crowd getting usurped by the more prole-Hermosa Beach's  Black Flag. 
Black Flag with singer #3

You get the impression that he's got to get a big finale in before his loss of status sets in, so, leave a beautiful corpse.  Unfortunately, John Lennon had to also die that week, undercutting media attention. 

I don't have as much to say about The Runaways, though it's a better film.  I have to agree with a lot of folks that the sicko manager Kim Fowley running the band through Rock and Roll Basic Training to be the strongest element of the film, a kind of Karate Kid motivational moment.  The main connection between WWDIS and The Runaways is of course Joan Jett, who was the nominal producer of the Germ's sole album.  While there's never a doubt that you're in LA - after all, the movie starts with pimp Fowley cruising Rodney Binginheimer's English Disco- giving the audience the glam-to-protopunk context- the band is almost without a scene to move in.  Indeed, in a show of more real depth than is found in anything to be seen in WWDIS, the film points to Fowley deliberately keeping them isolated from the scene.  It probably helped stovepipe them to being almost famous quicker than if they had moved in the hip circles, but the isolation left them undeveloped socially and spiritually- remember, these are teenage girls.  His predatory nature clearly senses this in the film and he exploits it.   

The end of the film is in a way a bit off-kilter, as it shows Jett going through a rebirth/reboot/new scheme after the band fizzles out, becoming Joan Jett the Rock and Roll Bad Girl.  It's somewhat hurried, but probably inevitable-considering that Jett herself has her name all over this biopic, sanitizing a lot of stuff that's only recently come to surface.   Jett's reinvention paid off in the end, launching a career that was not exactly inspiring, has paid the bills. For those who are interested in more on Miss Jett, read bassist Jackie Fox's essay on how Jett is very similar to another invented persona, Fox's Harvard Law School classmate Barrack Obama.

As far as LA biopics go, I'd love to see Black Flag's story told.  Unfortunately, a story about a group that had four singers and over a dozen bassists and drummers probably would not translate into a two hour movie particularly well.  

And, unlike the Germs, everyone's still alive and kicking.

                                                       Reunion Gig.  Please tour. 

Regardless of the quality of the bands back then, you have to give 'em credit.  They had real personalities, whether the spooky weirdness of Christian Death or the upbeat fun of the GoGo's.
Imagine my disappointment when I came out of the woods in 1993 after going on a three-year nature quest from snivelization to find that all of that had disappeared, replaced with bands that seemed to feature singers who sounded like a drunk uncle imitating Al Jolson.

                                                  STP cover of a Pearl Jam song

Other than the yabba dabba surfer nazi stuff from Orange County Hardcore, LA music was pretty cool.  I still listen to it pretty often. What the two LA biopics offer is a glimpse into band obsessively defining themselves, one in the context of a virtual tribe, the other isolated in pure spectacle.  Kids now aren't probably so hooked into such things in the way they were then- they're more political and mediated by the constant feedback loops of instant media- spectacles now being crowdsourced rather than svengali'd.  However, as I hope to cover later, this isn't necessarily an improvement.

The Germ's scene was a fairly grassroots thing, though its  status signalling, in typical LA fashion, was as oppressive as the pure Hollywood production that the Runaways were thrust into.  The latter we don't go for much anymore, while the former has an influence that runs even into the hipster/SJW culture of today.

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