There was a time when they were proclaimed as the saving grace of rock and roll. Heralded as the Next Big Thing while staying firmly rooted in their western wasteland mentality, they encompassed everything experimental and evocative about the emerging American punk movement. Combining the classic riffing of rockabilly (thanks to Billy Zoom's amazing instrumentation), a jarring journeyman bass throb (at the hands of group leader John Doe), in combination with a powerful, potent backbeat (the work of one DJ Bonebrake), the resulting sonic boom was covered in the evocative poetry and surreal vocal stylings of the sole female member (the inexplicable Exene Cervenka) to create a music that was raw, urgent, fresh, familiar, and confrontational, all in one pulse-pounding, ear-bleeding package. During their initial run, they made at least two classic albums, released dozens of sensational songs, and proved that old-fashioned power could meet glam Gothic conceptualizing to spur a sensational new sound. To many, they were the answer to corporate rock's woes. To others, they were X: The Unheard Music
Perfectly capturing the alienation and adventure of the Los Angeles punk scene circa the early 1980s, X: The Unheard Music is more than just a documentary about the seminal California musical group. Indeed, playing like a scrapbook filled with fascinating, fatalistic images, this is one devastating portrait of an area and an era in flux. From the performance art antics with their crazed Kabuki leanings just starting to creep in from the East Coast, to the thrift store ideals of fun and fashion, we witness the actual birth of the novel No Wave generation, callous kids in all their retro-loving lunacy with X as the backing track for their distant, disconnected youthfulness. Along the way, the band speaks for itself in novel individual portraits and loud sonic stage booms. It's arty, but it's also amazingly potent.
X: The Unheard Music is not your typical behind-the-scenes document or staid set list concert film. Instead, it's a tone poem to a specific time period, a chance to see X at the height of their premier popularity while getting selected snippets of the burgeoning bizarro LA scene. From dirty streets that seem to stink of failed dreams to wide-open vistas that suggest the end of the line instead of infinite possibilities, this is California as a dead end, the sun-and-fun lifestyle turned dire and dark. As the group takes the small stage, mere inches away from the angry audience, we survey a particularly interesting sea of frightening faces. Comprised of punks and poseurs, skate rats and surf Nazis, the crowd constantly cramming to the front of the stage during the lightening live portion of the movie (moshing having not quite been perfected by then) look like future felons, or half-hearted heroin addicts in training. They give off an aura of angry discontent, their eyes filled with rage as the music fuels their internal fires.
As a live band, X was exceptional, moving through their catalog with pristine power. Zoom is particularly nuclear, standing like a typical cocksure rocker, running through his whiplash riffs with amazing adeptness. DJ Bonebrake beats on his kit like a youth possessed, his arms flailing to keep the maddening beat. As Doe squints and sings in full-force bravado, Exene appears haunted, lost in the songs and seeking her way back into the real world. The music here is just amazing, with selections from four of the band's best albums: 1980's Los Angeles ("Los Angeles," "Soul Kitchen," "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," "The Unheard Music," "The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss"); 1981's Wild Gift ("The Once Over Twice," "We're Desperate," "Year 1," "White Girl," "Beyond and Back"); 1982's Under the Big Black Sun ("The Hungry Wolf," "Motel Room in My Bed," "Riding with Mary," "Because I Do," "Come Back to Me," "Real Child of Hell," "The Have Nots") and 1983's More Fun in the Real World ("I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," "True Love, Pt. 2"). Intercut with evocative visual interludes, interview footage, band introductions, rehearsal snippets, and the occasional far-too-personal moment, the film gives us an overall portrait of the members, not just as a musical act, but as cultural influences and reflections.
There are several standout moments in this amazing film: the band recording Wild Gift's "White Girl"; Billy Zoom running through a couple of '50s classics on his amazing array of guitars; Doe working out the melody for "Real Child of Hell" (and explaining the meaning of the lyrics), and an amazing version of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," featuring frantic backup by original Door Ray Manzarek. Indeed, it was this member of the LA superstars from the late 1960s / early '70s who championed X and went on to produce their first four albums. Director W. T. Morgan definitely understands the power in the montage, but also knows when to kill the jump cutting and simply let the camera capture the drama as it slowly and simply unfolds. Several times during the course of X: The Unheard Music we are caught off guard at seeing Billy, Exene, or John so open and vulnerable. Even the amiable arrogance radiated by Mr. Zoom seems to slip away when the band is caught in a crossfire of personalities or problems. The result is a truly amazing movie, a glimpse into the inner workings of a band that was about to melt down completely (Zoom would leave the group the year the film was finally released).
Originally released by Image in a barebones DVD presentation, the Blu-ray update of X: The Unheard Music is simply stunning. MVD Visual took the old print with its infrequently flaws and turned it into a nearly pristine transfer. First, the original 1.33:1 picture is opened up for a far more revealing 1.78:1 framing. This allows the concert material to seem larger in scope and less claustrophobic. Similarly, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encode offers up details (the streaks in Zoom's slicked hair, the creases around Exene's mouth) that one could not see before. Yes, the source provides a few rough patches, but for non-HD analog footage given the technological update, things look pretty darn great.
On the sound side of things, one can stick with the original LPCM 2.0 Stereo (not too shabby) or, go to the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. While not a lossless HD Master, it is a much louder, much more muscular, and oddly enough, a less dynamic choice. If all you want is a massive audio roar from your channels, pick the multi-speaker option. There is less range, but much more rage. It's like the concert clips on YouTube where the cameraphone can't modulate the information it's receiving. While not distorted, it's clearly amped up. If you want everything to play at a much more moderate level, choose the 2.0. The filmmakers prefer the 5.1, and unless you are a purist, it is the best bang for your HD buck.
The original release offered no bonus features. This time around, we get a few intriguing bits. There is a 20 minute sit down with John and Exene, both discussing the 25th Anniversary release of the film. Then there is a interview with Angel City Productions circa 1983 which discusses the making of the movie. There's a live outtake of "Some Other Time" and a look at the original theatrical trailer. Finally, we get a gallery replica of the accompanying souvenir songbook and a insert booklet. Not bad, but definitely not the definitive added content something like X: The Unheard Music yearns for.
The Unheard Music is actually a very appropriate title for this documentary. For most of today's mainstream music fans, who think punk started and ended with Green Day's American Idiot, X must seem like a Styx-era dinosaur act with little or no relevance in today's hardcore hierarchy. But the truth is far more fascinating. X's music may currently remain unheard because the world has yet to catch up to their wholly original rock and roll voice. One day, this band will get all the accolades they deserve. The release of X: The Unheard Music will definitely help pave the way for their long-overdue acknowledgment. This is a great film, one easily warranting a Highly Recommended rating.