Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws opens with a detailed exploration into the legal battle that nearly bankrupted sonic collage artists Negativland.
Their song combined, among other things, radio personality Casey Kasem spouting off a stream of profanities and ranting about a band with the letter U and numeral 2 in their name ("these guys are from England, and who gives a shit?") mixed in with an extended sample from U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". They then slid that single into a sleeve with "U2" printed in big, bold letters behind a shot of a U2 spy plane. A 180 page lawsuit from U2's label almost immediately followed, resulting in the destruction of all outstanding copies of the record, a bill for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and eventually a lawsuit from their own record label. The event would go on to define the band, not destroy it, and through collections like their book Fair Use, they helped make copyright law and the conflict between corporate ownership and art a hotly-discussed topic.
The Negativland/U2 debacle is frequently used as a touchstone throughout Sonic Outlaws, but the film casts a much wider net than that single event, examining copyright law, continuing corporate encroachment into that area, fair use, and an omnipresent media.
Negativland doesn't limit themselves to smirking criticism through splicing together and recontextualizing excerpts from the news and popular culture. They also relate a story about how an undoubtedly unprofitable tour was aborted, and rather than just say that the tour wasn't worth the hassle and emptied bank accounts, Negativland claimed that they were being investigated for their music's role in a teenager who murdered his family. Their hoax was quickly adopted by a number of lazy yet frighteningly well-respected news organizations. Sonic Outlaws takes a look at other anti-corporate rebellions, such as one movement to reconstruct billboards to convey entirely different messages, such as an Army ad made to read "We'll pay you $288 a month to kill." Another group swapped out voice chips in toys and put the altered figures back on store shelves, so a kid might go home with a G.I. Joe toy and find a squeaky Barbie voice babbling about wanting to hit the mall. The film also shows the ease with which conversations both public and private can be plucked out of the air, mocked, and invaded. Sonic Outlaws goes on to give time to other 'plunderphonic' groups like The Tape-beatles (who have a registered trademark on the word "plagiarism"), EBN, and, though they're not quite in that same league, 2 Live Crew.
Fair use, copyright law, and this sort of subversive creativity make for an extremely interesting concept for a documentary, and even if Sonic Outlaws had just consisted of interview footage and talking heads, it still would've gotten my attention and probably netted a reasonably positive write-up.
However, Craig Baldwin takes the same approach to this film that his subjects do to their works -- excerpting material from a variety of sources and then recontextualizing and manipulating them to create something new. Just to name a few examples, Baldwin inserts footage from an old Silly Putty commercial at one point, showing kids gleefully lifting an image from a comic strip and then stretching it. That image of some form of media popularizing the idea of directly copying another form of media is very amusing in the context of Sonic Outlaws. Another clever use, while discussing these fringe groups' creations and their struggles with corporate giants, is accompanied by bizarre footage of a mammoth toga-clad teenager pitted against a normal-sized kid with a sling, adding appropriate visuals to that sort of David and Goliath story. A complete list would be too daunting a task for a review like this, but the visual and aural assault includes things like a phone interview with The Edge, Dan Rather struggling to deal with protestors on the set of the CBS Evening News, a snippet from Perry Mason, and a black and white dog food commercial. Baldwin takes these disparate elements and weaves an engaging narrative from them, and especially to anyone with an interest in sampling, parody, and copyright law, Sonic Outlaws is well worth seeking out.
Video: Sonic Outlaws is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As is probably always going to be the case with Craig Baldwin's work, this isn't a DVD to whip out for a home theater showcase, nor was it ever meant to be. With so many different types of material being incorporated into the film -- to rattle off just a couple, 8mm interview footage, vintage commercials, old news broadcasts, and, perhaps most impressively, a Pixelvision PXL-2000 (I used to make mind-bogglingly awful movies on one of those fifteen years ago) -- the quality varies throughout, and it never really looks great. Colors can be kind of wonky, detail's lackluster, and some of the Negativland interview footage in particular seems like the source tape had nearly been worn through.
I'd say the spotty quality with its indeterminate age is part of the charm, and although there are a couple of scattered digital hiccups throughout, Sonic Outlaws looks about as good as can reasonably be expected.
Audio: The DVD sports a utilitarian Dolby Digital mono track, encoded at the usual 192Kbps bitrate. It's nothing flashy or remarkable, but the interviewees are all clear and easily understood, and the music sounds alright. No complaints -- well, at least from me since I can hear, but if you can't, it might be worth noting that no subtitles or closed captions are offered.
Supplements: Two additional pieces are included on this DVD. Eric Salter's "Boosterism" (3:36) uses a video collage to accompany jazz by someone who I probably ought to recognize. Phil Patiris' "The World of Survival" was excerpted in Sonic Outlaws and is presented here in its entirety. The short film accomplishes quite a bit in its three and a half minutes, mocking corporate media ownership as well as war as entertainment, among other things. Playing more like a commercial break than a typical short, "The World of Survival" also splices the Zapruder film in with audio from a Ford Lincoln-Mercury spot, serves up a frenetic O.J. Simpson 1-800-COLLECT commercial, and debuts a TV spot for Charlton Heston's The Omega Rifleman. Rounding out the extras are trailers for 70's Dimension and Tribulation 99. The DVD also includes a set of static 4x3 menus, twelve chapter stops, and liner notes with an essay by Jesse Lerner.
Conclusion: Sonic Outlaws takes an already intriguing subject and presents its arguments in a creative, fascinating way. The sticker price and limited availability may scare away some viewers, but this is a DVD worth tracking down. Probably best suited for a rental, however unlikely that may turn out to be, but still Recommended.