FILM REVIEW WRITTEN IN 1999:
"Instrument" is something that we don't often get a chance to see; it's also rare that we see something like this done so well. The film is a documentary that takes a look at the history of underground punk band Fugazi, a politically minded punk rock band that has been putting out their own albums and booking their own concerts since their start in 1987; it's 1999 and they're still putting out albums out of their home base in Washington, DC on their record label, Dischord Records. The band has roots in the early 80's DC hardcore scene; lead singer Ian Mackaye was also the lead singer for famed 80's hardcore band Minor Threat.
The film is like a lot of the band's music; straight-ahead, consistently creative and down-to-earth. I've personally watched the band perform many times and there is a certain incredible energy that is contained in a Fugazi concert; the audience is not "the audience", they're made to feel as part of the show. The band provides an intense, energetic concert experience that is duplicated quite well here, showing them at various charity events and shows that they've played throughout the years. The film stocks and styles that filmmaker Jem Cohen uses throughout the film vary wildly from 8mm to 16mm and even video; editing is also done in a fascinating, appropriate manner for the material.
We go back and forth between views of the band practicing, playing live and doing various interviews explaining their stance on how they are able to create and produce music outside the record industry, providing their audience with CDs that retail for around 10 dollars and play to audiences who only pay $5 dollars per ticket. Do they have an audience? Yes, they certainly do. I was present at a few shows the band played where they would sell out huge venues, and the shows they put on are still up their among the best live acts I saw in the few years where I loved to go to concerts as much as possible.
I watched this film a week or two after watching Radiohead's similar documentary, "Meeting People Is Easy" and although I certainly enjoyed that look at a band on tour, I think "Instrument" succeeds at showing the entire history and views of a band, taking a much more intimate look at the life of a band that refuses to become part of the music industry that we all know, and time and time again, they're proving that they can be successful outside of all of the record companies that are providing us with pretty much, the same thing over and over again. There are a lot of similar style choices between "Meeting People Is Easy" and "Instrument" in terms of filming, but I felt that I got a better idea of Fugazi in "Instrument" than I did of Radiohead in "Meeting People Is Easy". Two very different bands, but I really enjoyed both films and hope more bands will do something in the way of a documentary like this rather than consistently put out music videos on MTV that aren't interesting, don't tell us anything about the band and simply exist to fuel record sales. I sat down to watch "Meeting People Is Easy" as not a fan of the band, but sitting down to enjoy a movie. "Instrument" was a film that I sat down to watch as a fan of the band and I think it provides fans with everything they'd want: great live footage from many different years and a rare chance to see many different interviews that the band has done.
What is so entertaining and fascinating about "Instrument" is that you see the entire history of a band, and in this case, it's interesting to watch Fugazi as they change up their styles from their early punk beginings to present day. There are parts of this film where we're watching the concerts with sound that is "in-sync" with the video and parts where a whole new set of songs were recorded to go along with the images. Those new songs are also available in a seperate CD.
Again, I'd like to say how impressed I was with the filmmaking work of Jem Cohen, who is a longtime friend of the band. The use of black and white mixed with color and different film formats looks absolutely great here and captures the band in all their glory throughout an entire decade of their existence. We not only get to know the band from their own words in various interviews, but we also get to see on "Instrument" many of their fans talking about what the music of Fugazi means to them.
"Instrument" is an well done, innovative and engaging look at a band that is still making great music on their own terms and who continue to grow and expand their talents as musicians and hopefully will continue to produce music for years to come.
Also included is a booklet that details director Cohen's thoughts on filmmaking and the band's history.
VIDEO: As mentioned on the film review, a variety of stocks and styles were used to capture the band - there are instances of 8mm film, 16mm film and video throughout, as well as some scenes in black and white and color. While one might think that this would cause a jarring effect with the different qualities of the different material, the material locks together nicely. Sharpness and detail does vary a bit throughout the program, as some scenes do look sharp and well-defined, while others look a bit dimly lit or slightly on the soft side, but not distractingly so.
There are a few problems, but they're certainly not distracting and also, they're less in number than one would expect, considering the low-budget nature. Some shots (mainly the occasional passing scenery, it seemed) revealed a bit of dirt and a few marks, but nothing major. Grain is to be expected, given the material, but it doesn't distract and often, sort of adds to the imagery, actually. No pixelation and no edge enhancement were found, either.
As with sharpness, colors also tend to vary throughout the program, appearing sharp and crisp at times and rather soft at others. Still, I thought the DVD really didn't reveal many concerns and looked noticably a bit sharper and cleaner than the VHS I'd previously watched the film on.
SOUND: "Instrument" is presented in stereo. While some may have desired a 5.1 remix to benefit the musical segements, it really isn't very necessary. I've watched a few punk DVD/Video presentations where the audio seemed just good enough so that you can generally tell what song the band is playing. On "Instrument", the recording is not entirely consistent, but always at least enjoyably clear and fairly full sounding. Given the low-budget nature of the documentary, the songs are really quite impressively well-captured.
MENUS:: Menus are extremely basic, with only the options and no background images whatsoever.
EXTRAS: Two early Jem Cohen films with Fugazi soundtracks, "Little Flags" and "Glue Man", are offered. Also included are additional live performances of "Waiting Room", "Turnover" and "Long Division".
Final Thoughts: Watching "Instrument" again at least a year after the last viewing reveals a film that does seem rather fractured, but still works far more often than not, showing the 10 year journey of a band who has become successful on their own terms. A new album, "The Arguement", has just been released and shows the band continuing to update their sound and show further musical growth, while still bringing the intensity and passion that they offered in their earlier work.
Probably not for everyone, but those who are fans of the band or fans of the genre should certainly take a look.