It is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in all of documentary filmmaking – contextualizing a cult entity to establish an element of mainstream meaning or universality. Be it a heretofore unknown filmmaker, a more or less forgotten public figure, or a name band made irrelevant by the constant temporal migration of the music industry, anyone tackling this type of fact film runs the risk of reducing their subject to an inconsequential afterthought, or worse, alienating the audience they hoped to attract. Some entities just don't translate, no matter what position you take: outrageous laudatory (Half Japanese: The Band that Would Be King) or simple and superficial (Captain Beefheart: Under Review). In essence, the goal here is to get to the core conceit and why certain select fans respond to it. If you can do that, you create a true filmmaking miracle. It's time to add Tim Irwin's name to the relatively short list of such cinematic sages. His stunning We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen takes the LA punk fusion trio and flawlessly illustrates their impact on the 70s/80s rock scene. The result is one of the best rock docs ever, on par with DiG! and Some Kind of Monster in importance and insight.
Dennis "D" Boon met Mike Watt while they were students in a high school. They immediately connected on a personal level, and began jamming together after class. Soon they were forming a band, relying on the heavy metal of the era to fuel their playlist. Boon's mom supported their efforts outright, saying that concentrating on music was better than wandering the streets, getting into trouble. But graduation delivered two seminal moments for the fast friends. It meant their first foray into the real world of individual responsibility, and since it was 1976, punk was also pounding on the door. The duo instantly took to the DIY spirit of the movement, and decided to write their own songs. Soon, they were gigging with band mate George Hurley under the telling tag The Minutemen.
While it would be easy to end by saying "the rest was history", the truth is a little more troublesome. As Boon and Watt grew in their personal philosophies, their songcraft evolved as well. Where once they were penning 45 second screeds to adolescent angst, their more mature material was delving into deliberately different stylistic and socio-political options. It wasn't unusual to hear the band reference R&B, soul, jazz, blues, prog, pop and even country in the sonic cacophony of their multi-faceted musical melting pot. If it weren't for a horrible event that ended the band almost instantly, The Minutemen stood to become the defining force of the early LA circuit. As it stands, their impact remained important, while the sounds they made fell out of favor as new wave, and then grudge/alternative swept the scene slate clean. Today, they are critical cult darlings. We Jam Econo could change all that.
The Minutemen existed in their own insular world. Made up of disaffected youth, detached from the temptations of modern pop culture, D. Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley literally marched to their own unique beat, and used the varying emotional elements of music – from the thrash violence of punk to the complex karma of jazz – to sonically signify their own inner turmoil. While many mistakenly believe the band got its name from the length of a typical track, the truth is that Boon and his buddies were far smarter than that. Highly opinionated, free with their political views, and able to see the irony in the juxtaposition of genres (skinheads grooving on Coltrane/reggae), they preached politics as they courted controversy without ever really being confrontational. They also experimented with the avant garde during an era where rock was routinely stripping down its sound. In the strange, jagged blasts of D. Boon's guitar, the fat back linear lard of Watts' warm bass burps, and the always inventive poly pogo rhythms of Hurley's percussion, the group was a reflection and a commentary of their specific place (early '80s Cali) and time (the beginning of Reagan's royal reign). That said music would not easily translate beyond those parameters is not terribly appalling. That it is still highly regarded today is, perhaps, the band's lasting shock value.
Though many might fault it as being nothing more than a series of talking heads interspersed with sensational live concert footage, We Jam Econo (thank you, Mike Watt, for that amazingly enigmatic phrase) is a breathtaking documentary accomplishment. It paints portraits both deep and dimensional, finding the humor and the heartache in The Minutemen's belabored rise to the middle of the music business. Like other SoCal acts (Flipper, The Descendents) that got very little play outside the college radio crowd, The Minutemen defined a certain tribal standard for their listeners and fans. It wasn't all that important that Boon, Watt and Hurley became sudden superstars. What the angry and alienated kids of California wanted were bands who matched their ire (Black Flag, Fear) their confusion (Dead Kennedys), and the close-knit sense of community via skating (The Circle Jerks). In the Minutemen, these kids found their intellectualized equivalent. Boon and Watt wrote hardcore hymns to the flagrant phoniness in modern music (the brilliant "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" and "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing") as well as the inherent fear that the same thing was destined to happen within their own creative clan ("Shit You Hear at Parties", "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth"). Instead of inciting rage or regret, The Minutemen argued for change – both personal and political. They sold it in their words. They lived it in their sound.
By using the stories of those who played alongside the band during their hurried heyday, as well as the considered opinions of those who they inspired, We Jam Econo delivers an encyclopedia's worth of crucial context. Such legendary players as X's John Doe, The Red Hot Chili Pepper's Flea, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore join members of The Vandals, Black Flag, and others to discuss the impact of the band, while Mike Watt and George Hurley fill us in on personal as well as historic details. In between, the classic crash bang trio take us on a sweat and spunk spiked tour of their startling aural outrage as we see them playing in varying formats (local clubs, large stages, intimate theaters and the occasional outdoor venue). These old video feeds, looking like lost scenes from a snuff film musical, really illustrate the yarns being spun. While it's helpful to have Henry Rollins explaining the fan reaction to the Minutemen's machine gun din, seeing the actual response for ourselves reinforces the impact. We also bear witness to the amazing virtuosity of the players. Boon, a big round guy with a deranged dancer's grace bounces around the stage as a startling array of riffs and chords come keening out of his axe. Watt works the strings of his base like the keys on a typewriter, realizing every lick is another word in his musical manifesto. Hurley, his Flock of Seagulls hair hiding a truly inventive drum style, held it all together in jerky, jaunting rhythms, making The Minutemen the sharpest threesome since Paul Weller and the boys taught the UK mods how to Jam.
Yet there is more to this masterful film beyond the music. While it's key, the emotions that bonded the boys together sits at the heart of We Jam Econo. It is, perhaps, no big surprise that tragedy ended the band's forward momentum. While this critic won't spoil the story (the DVD cover art ruins the reveal, however), it's a typical rock and roll reason. Watt has a very hard time as the narrative builds to the moment that meant the end of the Minutemen. Yet even before the reveal, Watt is a man mixed up and, seemingly, suffering inside. It is obvious that he feels trapped by his tale, realizing that the Minutemen had something important to say and he was part of its now gone glory. But he's equally managed to move on with his own successful semi-sequel (the post Boon trio known as fiREHOSE) as well as a solid career as a solo act and sideman.
Missed opportunity haunts our narrator, and as we watch the war between the past and present play out, Watt becomes a perfect illustration of the Minutemen's importance to the early indie rock scene. They laid the groundwork for much of the music that came out of the area while proving that the spirit of DIY could help, not hinder, your career path. As a final testament to Boon, We Jam Econo is more celebration than homily. Though we don't get to know him as well as we'd like, this stunning documentary achievement reflects his personal importance. You don't need to own a Minutemen album in your current collection to adore this fine film, but once you've experienced its outstanding oral history, you'll be rushing to the brick and mortar to address that obvious sonic shortcoming. The Minutemen may have been "difficult" and "cerebral" in their time. The movie about their limited stay in the limelight is easily one of the best every made of such a subject.
A combination of digitally captured new interviews, old stock footage, video Q&As, public access cable concerts and taped live material, We Jam Econo is an interesting cinematic hodgepodge. Plexifilm creates a compelling visual variable by allowing the elements to mix and mesh in an outstanding optical scrapbook. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful and cloudy, loaded with detail as well as the occasional defect. Again, what Irwin does is marvelous. His montages really move the story and his editing is exceptional. It's the source material that's occasionally at fault here, not anything done by the director or his DVD distributor.
Some may sour on this release when they learn there is no full blown 5.1 remaster, but the solid stereo elements of the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix more than make up for the lack of additional channel challenges. The conversations are crystal clear, captured in locales as unusual as the streets of San Pedro (Watts drives us around town in his van as he talks about the band's history) and a London pub (where Colin Newman of Wire, an obvious Minutemen muse, reflects on the group). Besides, the live material is positively dazzling. Even without the additional speaker dynamic, the songs definitely deliver the severe sonic shockwaves the band was known for.
Simply breathtaking – that's the only way to describe it. Plexifilms piles on the amazing added content, creating a two disc DVD package that will overwhelm even the most ardent fan of the band. The only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary from Irwin. It's too bad he didn't get a chance to supplement his showcase with some personal anecdotes and production notes. Still, with the rest of the staggering complementary material, the lack of such an alternate track is really inconsequential. Disc 1 begins with a collection of 19 deleted scenes and interviews, many of which could easily find a home in the featured film itself. There is also a look at the entire 1985 interview at Bard College (which was intercut into the film), and it's revelatory. Aside from Watts title sendoff, we get additional statements of purpose from Boon, showing just how dedicated he was to the art of making music. Add in a collection of music videos (for songs "This Ain't No Picnic", "Ack-Ack-Ack-Ack" and "King of the Hill") and you've got a great first disc.
But there's still another whole DVD to enjoy, and it's here where We Jam Econo really shines. Three separate shows, 62 songs from the Minutemen canon, a jaw-dropping display of live musicianship – that's what we get over the course of this incredible second disc. Though we see a lot of these songs during the movie, watching the band work the crowd, interacting and interpreting their entertainment needs is like viewing into the literal definition of the crowd/concert connection. If all this presentation had to offer was a Behind the Music style press piece and these fascinating shows, we'd have an excellent overall Minutemen primer. But thanks to the main movie's flawless execution, the bevy of bonus features, and the accompanying 16 page booklet complete with photos and filmmaker memories (unavailable to this critic at the time of the review), we get a fairly complete portrait of The Minutemen. It's an incredibly touching tribute to a trio of truly gifted guys.
It was clear to anyone paying attention that 2005 was the year of the rock doc. Even American master Martin Scorcese turned his considered camera on Bob Dylan to resurrect the 60s social bard from his dormant state as forgotten founding figure of the modern musical landscape. By offering the context that so many fact-filled discussions miss, No Direction Home turned this compartmentalized artist back into the classic case he always was. Here's hoping that We Jam Econo does the same thing. As time and business acumen shifts the popular culture all over the musical map, embracing one genre while deflating another, we need filmmakers like Irwin to play aural historian. We loose so many important performers to the winds of worthless change that, without movies like this one, we'd never remember the reasons why they were semi-celebrated in the first place. Just missing the Collector's Edition score by the slimmest of preferential margins, this delightful documentary is indeed Highly Recommended. Anyone who's a fan of Boon, Watt and Hurley have no excuse. We Jam Econo demands ownership. But for those who don't know the band, who think all rock sagas end with well-deserved self-destruction, this film will completely alter your perception. The Minutemen remain a classic cult act. Here's praying this remarkable movie broadens their appeal. They deserved it then, and they definitely deserve it now
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