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.
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.
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.
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.