William E. Jones stumbled on an interesting premise when he came up with the idea for his 2004 documentary Is It Really So Strange? Essentially, he decided to make a film about the burgeoning cult of Morrissey in Los Angeles. Morrissey fronted the band the Smiths in the '80s before going solo, and his music came to embody a certain image of heartfelt intellectualism and literate emotional expression. Though a true misfit, he was also decidedly English, and by cliché, adolescent. The accepted image of a Morrissey fan was of an alienated, sad white boy with an odd haircut laying across or tombstone or crying into his mattress.
At the tail end of the last century, Jones discovered that this was no longer an acceptable stereotype (if it ever was). The fanbase that had grown up around Morrissey in his new home was decidedly reflective of Southern California itself. Namely, it was largely filled with kids who were Latino and Hispanic, and who had created a communal experience where once fans had been believed to stay hidden in their bedrooms.
Unfortunately, the film Jones put together falls short of the concept. Intended to be an exploration of the highly personal subculture, Is It Really So Strange? ends up being a strangely impersonal film.
Part of the problem seems to be a lack of focus. Jones has gathered together a large collection of fans ranging from the fascinating (Victor, who has completely modeled his physical appearance after his idol but refuses to let himself be shown on film; Jaysin, the former runaway and male prostitute) to the mundane (most of the rest of the subjects). Granted, when looking at a group of people for how they are alike, you don't necessarily need too many that overly stand out, but they should at least be interesting.
The downside of such a large cast is that Jones has to try to give all of them screen time, and so in the end, the audience is left not knowing any of them. Why not choose a few to splinter off from the group and follow them through their lives? The closest Jones comes is with the cover band Sweet & Tender Hooligans. Why not dig more into the personality of Jose, the band's singer, or their rhythm guitarist, Jeff, who has oddly chosen to spend the entire interview sitting next to his dad? What is it about these two guys that makes them want to spend their musical careers copying someone else? Jose seems to have no insight into the music he sings (either that, or he's the victim of cruel editing), and though Jeff wants to open up, he seems to skirt all the issues. Occasionally, he leans over and apologizes to his father for putting Morrissey above him, so the old man's presence might be why Jeff is reluctant to go into specifics.
Yet, no one in this film goes into specifics. One girl says that Morrissey's songs heal her wounds, but she fails to elaborate on how she was wounded. Jeff says the lyrics speak of the "dark places" in his own head, but is anyone going to ask him what those dark places are? Jones stinks as an interviewer. In his unnatural sounding narration, he goes into detail of his own reactions to Morrissey's lyrics, but apparently it never occurred to him to ask his subjects for theirs. Or even just ask "Why?" every once in a while. Only Jaysin opens up, describing his street life and how he found a way to express what was happening to him through Morrissey's narratives.
All in all, Jones' process for selecting who he would follow seems to be where the trouble began. In the opening montage of the different fans talking about how they first heard of Morrissey, it's telling that several of them don't even get the name of the song right. Some fans! Jones so much as admits the problem when he confesses that hardly anyone would talk to him, a dilemma only partially fixed by changing his hair to match Morrissey's trademark pompadour. He took what he could get, and he then passed it on to us.
Which isn't to say Is It Really So Strange? is completely without interest. Moments of insight do shine through. Manuel, for instance, is very articulate in explaining how a Mexican living in America might find some sort of kinship in Morrissey, an Irish child who grew up in England. There is also a rather detailed retelling of a photoshoot of the man himself that Jones assisted on. It's presented as a voiceover alongside the photos in question (the nearest we get to footage of the singer). In fact, Jones is an excellent still photographer, and shots of the youth scene he took are really quite good, even maintaining the aesthetic of old Smiths album covers.
The subject of sexuality also comes up eventually, and several gay fans talk about how Morrissey's ambiguity allowed them to project their own desires into the music, while the allegedly straight fans display a weird standoffishness when the topic is broached. Given that the majority of Morrissey's songs are about interpersonal relationships and individual desires, it's kind of shocking to hear people who are dismissive of the importance of who those songs might be about. Yes, big macho dudes cry at Morrissey concerts. Yes, they rush the stage and hug their hero. That doesn't make them gay...right?
If Jones wasn't being so standoffish himself, he could have pushed further into this dichotomy and asked why people who are so committed to music about feelings are so scared of feeling themselves. Instead, he lets it all slide by. One can only guess he was fearful of offending them. They might shout, "This interview is over!" and stomp out of the room. Given the packaging of the DVD, however, it's quite clear that the gay audience is one the distributor is hoping to reach, and since the topic obviously interests Jones, all I can say is, "Delve!"
There is also a notable lack of music in the documentary. I realize this is a low-budget film made almost entirely through grants, but it's a rather important aspect of the subject matter. One Smiths song appears in the movie, and it's saved until the closing credits. Not even the Sweet & Tender Hooligans are heard. We see a short burst of footage of one of their performances, and that's it. No one even talks about how the music sounds, and if you have no idea who Morrissey is, chances are you won't once the movie is over, either.
Still, for as harsh as all this sounds, Is It Really So Strange? is interesting in spite of how it's handled, even if it's only as a curiously fleeting glimpse into the mentality of a group of people who deserve to have their lives and their obsession explored further. It's probably for the die-hards only, the already indoctrinated, but there is just enough on hand for at least one spin.
The DVD transfer of Is It Really So Strange? makes it look exactly like what it is: a low-budget documentary shot entirely on video. The picture is clear if unspectacular, with the only noticeable flaw being when the screen is black, diagonal lines can be seen moving faintly across the background.
This does have sound, yes.
There is a quick slide-show style gallery of Jones' photos from the Morrissey parties and Sweet & Tender Hooligans gigs. All of them were seen in the film itself, however, and the annoying choice to present them here with audience chatter from one of those gatherings is distracting.
A short, 30-second trailer for another documentary called The Joy of Life has also been put on the DVD. As a teaser, it's a waste, as no real effort is made to tell us what the film is about. The best we get are snippets of reviews. Even so, it's supposed to be important enough of a feature that it's listed on the back cover.
If you're a fan of Morrissey and/or musical subcultures, then Rent It. There is probably enough here to at least hold your interest for the short eighty minutes Is It Really So Strange? plays, and then you can at least say you saw it. If neither of those things interest you, then Is It Really So Strange? might not be your thing. You will see small fragments of what young people gravitate to when they are looking for something to identify with, but you'll likely find the explanation wanting.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.