Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, practically an eon ago for many of you, a group emerged from the wasteland of the music business. Keeping in mind that the airwaves were ruled by pop stars like diva Pat Benatar and new wave groups like Berlin, it seems almost alien to believe that from the ashes of punk music came a band of eclectic artists driven on completely different levels such as those banding together in the group X. The band was made up of drummer Don Bonebrake, bassist John Doe (the leader of this pack), guitarist Billy Zoom, and singer Exene Cervenka; a lass known for her raw energy more than the lyrical qualities of her voice (which was in stark contrast to what the record companies would give airtime to). Together, they fused what became known as rockabilly, traditional punk (if such a musical genre could ever truly exist), rock, and even a bit of Goth thrown in for good measure. Keeping in mind that labels never fully describe anything, here's a look at the movie.
Like the Beatles a generation before them, X provided an interesting history in X: The Unheard Music by using the burgeoning art form of music video together with the more time tested clips from various sources to portray themselves in an interesting light. Shot over a period of years, the rise and eventual fall of the group was never in question; much like the marriage between John and Exene was doomed from the start. In terms of musical significance, X managed to have one cross over hit, a remake of Breathless on the like-named Richard Gere movie, but their power was more in how they influenced the generation than in their specific contribution to the charts. The movie bounced around a lot, showing some extremely depressing pictures to depict the hard times for independent musicians (if not a metaphor for the larger social picture of the day) interspersed with home movies of the band from their childhoods as well as gigs they worked and shows they were on. You could tell that almost none of the press understood the group (as if they themselves did) by the questions asked and if ever there was a band that "should have" succeeded, but didn't, this was it.
It's been almost twenty years since the movie was released to limited fanfare and those that attended the arthouse opening in Boston probably have more vivid memories of the crowd and the experience than the actual film itself (cough!) but it was just that; an experience of the times. Taking footage from all four of the band's initial albums, Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under The Big Black Sun, and More Fun In The Real World (though decidedly heavy on the earlier material), the manner in which the band grew, and then started growing apart, was evident. By using what amounts to behind the scenes footage from a host of sources, X: The Unheard Music managed to draw a picture of the music scene unlike any movie before it (a few came close though) and certainly better than anything since. The sheer freedom of expression the band pushed through probably gave rise to hordes of other groups over the years, paving the way for many that followed. Over time though, the corporate pop of performers like Kylie Minogue, Selena, and Cher, won out in the musical dominance wars of the mid 1980's to mid 1990's as well as those that came later such as Tori Amos, Sarah Brightman, or Everything But The Girl but I'd be willing to bet cogs in the wheel like The Great Kat owe more to X than you'll generally hear about (keeping in mind that X opened a lot of doors that they themselves never seemed to get past).
I'm going to rate X: The Unheard Music as Recommended in hopes that some of you will pick up the banner and embrace these past musical messiahs as an important part of the evolution of rock/punk/good fricking music. The five or so years it took to make this movie certainly saw the band members through some twisted times but the overall message they pushed shouldn't be lost in the mini-dramas that ultimately consumed the band. One other point of historical reference is that each of the band members went on to other projects after splitting up, some of them doing quite well too, but they never managed to find the right gig to adequately showcase their talents as they did with X.
Picture: X: The Unheard Music was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as shown in theatres and on video back in 1986. The source material varied a whole lot so the black & white home movies used obviously weren't pristine, the television interviews looked like fourth generation taped copies, and the camera work employed by director WT Morgan was often shaky (at best) yet the editing was bizarrely interesting and the overall effect was very much in tune with the band's music. The DVD transfer itself was decent but it didn't look like the original film stock was cleaned up and you'll see a number of print scratches, dirt, and other blemishes (just like it was supposed to show). The up side is that there were no compression artifacts or added video noise so kudos to Image for doing the best with what they had to work with.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0, 5.1 or even a 5.1 DTS track, all seemingly cleaned up at least a little bit (I compared my old tape copy) with the DTS track having the best dynamic range but also the most background noise. I suppose I'd have appreciated a subtitle track during the musical interludes since the lyrics have mostly slipped into the deeper recesses of my mind but the feel was the same when I listened to this one. As the film stated when the movie started though, you need to play it loud, really loud, to get the full effect of the show and the minor nuisances you'll hear are just part of the package.
Extras: The only real extra was a separate section that allowed you to skip the documentary parts of the film and see just the music material (lasting a bit over a half hour). I really wish the band could've gotten together (or even stayed apart) and given an audio commentary or that other extras, like an isolated audio track of the band's albums, were included but the most important aspect of the release is that it's finally getting out on DVD.
Final Thoughts: X: The Unheard Music will not set the world afire as the band seemed to do during the reign of Ronald Reagan's America but the DVD cements their contribution to music in general and you're not going to find a better version of this well received documentary. X marked the spot and for years, pretenders to the punk throne have sought to win back the crown but have all fallen short. The extras and technical matters were not as solid as fans would like but at least they can discard the well worn tapes they've burned through in favor of something that might actually withstand the constant playing this one seems to propel us to do.