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Half Japanese :The Band That Would Be King
- lyric from Half Japanese song "No More Beatlemania"
It seems like a fitting sonic soundbite from a band who aimed for royalty. Like most founding members of the punk rock movement, Half Japanese had a signature lyric that perfectly summed up their musical modus operandi. While the Ramones were blessed with a bevy - "Hey Ho, Let's Go" being the best - and the Sex Pistols found a perfect politico position with "No Future", it was Jad and David Fair's declaration of war on the still viable concept of Beatlemania that signified their part in the upcoming rock revolution. While many may find it hard to see these primitive, noise oriented neophytes as the kind of influence that say, The Clash or The New York Dolls were, one listen to their debut box set, ½ Gentlemen/ No Beasts solidifies their sonic position without question.
Why more attention hasn't been paid to this pioneering bedroom band seems fairly obvious, once their canon and the critical response has been reviewed. As artists, Half Japanese have been a secret source of pleasure for people who understand that their music speaks to a very select crowd, and as part of that privileged population, a certain arrogant aesthetic arises. To the devoted, you either adore Jad and David (and every permutation of the band dynamic over the last 30 years) or you're a musical moron. They won't bother trying to explain it to you, and when pressed, they will pass off your disdain as the incoherent illiteracy of the uninitiated.
This then becomes the main, major flaw in what is otherwise an incredibly entertaining documentary about the band. Half Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King is not a Behind the Music style investigation into what makes the Fair brothers such outsider savants. It is also not a linear history of the group. Instead, it's a love letter fashioned by one of their most rabid followers, a hymnal to the Holy majesty that is their music. If you can break beyond the wall of self-importance, and simply enjoy the people and places presented, you'll become a convert as well. It's just too bad that such a strangely insular strategy had to be used - from both a philosophical and cinematic standpoint - to tell what is an inherently interesting story.
Two lonely Michigan teens - each with a burning desire to make music. An attic bedroom. A guitar and some drums. Both boys not knowing a single thing about the instrument they were about to play - and yet play them they did. Fast forward a few frames and Half Japanese was born. The angst-ridden outlet for Jad and David Fair, this homemade musical maelstrom personified the DIY ideal of independent music perfectly. From their first foray into recording - the now classic EP Calling All Girls - to their three LP debut album, the Fairs fought to bring their vision of real, raw rock and roll to the forefront.
In the early 90s, director Jeff Feuezeig determined that this seminal band wasn't getting the respect they deserved. So he found the Fair brothers (David had dropped out of full time music making to get married and start a family) and decided to document their career. Tossing in commentary from a handful of Half Japanese supporters - including Matador Records mogul Gerard Cosloy, Velvet Underground legend Moe Tucker, and magician turned promoter Penn Jillette - and supplementing the story with as much performance footage as possible, Feuezeig named the film after one of the band's best albums. That is how we come to learn that the underground is alive and well and centered on a strange pair of siblings from deep in the heart of suburbia. That is how we discover that Half Japanese is The Band that Would Be King.
There are several ways one can view this intriguing but incomplete documentary on the ultimate outsider musicians - David and Jad Fair - and their band, Half Japanese. If you believe music started and ended with the Beatles, and that every musical act since the Fab Four have just been rehashing what John, Paul, George and Ringo did 100 times better, than perhaps it would be best if you avoided the contradictory claims made by this movie. If, on the other hand, you think that the alternative craze of the 90s saved rock and roll from itself, fulfilling punk's promise by bringing the DIY ideal and non-commercial concepts to the forefront, then you too should probably pass by this decade dismissive foray as well. Fans of new wave, disco, folk, funk, techno, trance, heavy metal or power pop also need not apply. The pundits pontificating here have no tolerance for your type and make no bones about expressing it - over and over again.
The issue then becomes, obviously, just who is this film for? Well, if you believe that Half Japanese began punk, best exemplified the lo-fi facets of home recordings and founded almost all the principles of avant-garde primitive music making, then this is a movie that speaks directly to you. If you know that this is a band that should be worshipped and adored, then you'll rave at how rational and realistic this documentary is. If you believe Jad Fair to be a forgotten genius, and his brother David one of the most unsung musical visionaries in the history of the genre, then The Band That Would Be King is your own personal beat Bible. Sadly, some may not be privy to the peculiar world pushed by the Fairs and their fans. For those lost on the outskirts of Fair Nation, this 90 minute fawn job will go down like a Limp Bizkit elixir.
Honestly, Half Japanese: The Band that Would Be King is not that insular. It understands that, in many cases, it will be preaching to the initiated and shunning the shortsighted. In reality, It actually functions on two wholly and distinct levels. To those who know the band, it's a potent praise-a-thon without a great deal of context or concrete information. Others without a point of Fair Brothers reference will see this as a farce, a strange story of an even stranger group that appears crafted completely out of a Christopher Guest film. Indeed you often can't tell if this is a celebration or a condemnation, a big put on or a sacred set of statement awaiting enshrinement.
Granted, the early music made by Half Japanese is about as far from the mainstream as you can get, but the way Feuezeig and his fellow fans treat it, it's like a private joke; something only they understand and acknowledge. Since we get so few examples of past Japanese (from the original noise days), it is really hard to get a handle on why their first few records were really so difficult. And Jad's 1992 performance pieces, seen here in their entirety, merely seem like naive singalongs. There's a piece missing that makes The Band That Would Be King seem incomplete, and some would call it historical perspective.
It's this mixed message that keeps Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King from attaining the greatness it strives for. Since it takes the position of gushing advocacy, it is blind to a lot of obvious questions. Both Jad and David Fair seem slightly off-kilter, filled with a dogma that definitely exists outside the rest of society. Yet except for a couple of cute scenes with the boys' parents, we learn virtually nothing about their upbringing. The years 1980 until 1990 blur by with a series of publicity stills, snapshots and title cards. Aside from a few founding members, the various individuals involved in Half Japanese's ever-changing sound are hardly ever named, let alone discussed. In many ways, the Band that Would Be King is like the worlds longest prologue. It pounds home the message of this group's amazing musical methodology, but never gets down to the meat of the story.
Certain segments do find the proper balance. Whenever Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground speaks, there is a clarity and a precision in her words that makes us understand immediately why she appreciates what Half Japanese does. She's in tune with the boys, just like they are in love with her seminal band (along with the Stooges and the MC5). Similarly, Penn Jillette can combine cloying tribute with inspired storytelling to explain how he had to champion the band by starting his own record label. Jad and David are also very capable of speaking for themselves, espousing their core concepts of music making with wide eyed ease (David's declaration on the simplicity of playing guitar is definitely one for the ages).
But where The Band that Would Be King runs into trouble is with its so-called "experts" - especially Byron Coley and Gerard Cosloy. Like listening to people who've unearthed the secret to the power of positive thinking, these outright shills for Half Japanese are certainly secure in their fandom. But some of the comments they make - all major label releases suck, Half Japanese's Charmed Life album is better than Sgt. Pepper's, etc - sound silly, frankly. This could be part of Feuezeig's design. It often appears that he is pushing his documentary into the factual comedy realm, highlighting the hilarious while downplaying the actual facts on the record.
When you take into consideration that, at the time of this film's making, Half Japanese were 15 years into their career, going through several group and sonic changes, you see the wealth of material Feuezeig had to work with. But just like anyone stepping in halfway through the story, this director can't decide what to glorify first. Had he stuck with music only (the performance pieces are fun and fresh) or the talking heads typical to most documentaries (providing INFORMATION, not homages, mind you) this film could have easily been a standout offering. Groups like Half Japanese deserve forums like this, chances to have both their sound and their sensibility discussed in ways that will intrigue the uninitiated and uninformed. But Feuezeig's fanboy fixation constantly corrupts a genuinely intriguing chronicle. The Band that Would Be King has all the hallmarks for a great rock doc - unknown story, intriguing group, a real connection to a misunderstood aspect of music - but it fails to fulfill its potential. As a result, we are more frustrated than truly fascinated.
Filmed in 1992, and looking at least that many years old, the DVD transfer of The Band that Would be King is not that good. Vanguard's 1.33 full frame digital image is filled with grain, dirt and other minor defects. Feuezeig switches frequently between color and black and white, film and archival video material, giving the print a certain cinematic, almost artistic quality. But there is a definite low budget feeling to the final look that makes the movie more time capsule than timeless.
When one comes to a music DVD title, there is usually a hope that the sonic aspects will deliver on the promise of the medium's amazing capacity. Sadly, The Band that Would Be King offers up a decent, but rather indistinct Dolby Digital Stereo mix that keeps everything thin and flat. There is far too much treble in the musical sequences, with very little bass or drums coming through the channels. While all conversations are clear and discussions discernible, the aural attributes of this release that we care about the most - the beautiful noise the Fairs made - do not live up to the standards set by other rock and roll releases.
One place where the DVD version of The Band that Would Be King really shines is in the added features department. Vanguard steps up and delivers several sensational (and one rather irritating) bonus elements that begin to address some of the issues in the film. We get the chance to see Half Japanese live circa 1984/85, thanks to two sensational concert videos. One is an 84 performance, taken from the public access program called The Gary and Scott Show. The band blasts through six sensational songs here. Equally good, and goofy, is Half Japanese: Live in Hell. A long form video, the band bops and brays in front of a blue-screen backdrop depicting the fiery pits of pain. It provides another seven song sampler. Jad also speaks for a few minutes during the 84 appearance (it is called an interview here) and we also get an alternative look at the opening of the film. Thanks to some incredibly rare home movie footage, we can see Jad and David (along with a classmate) jamming away. It is amazing stuff.
What's not amazing, on the other hand, is the dopey, dry commentary track provided by director Feuezeig and some guy named "Johan Kugleberg" (who, though his name seems like a ruse, actually exists - according to 'Google-burg'). Throughout the course of their very dull, incredibly self-serving narrative, we get more of the mind numbing dross that almost ruins the movie. This is another example of hubris based hype, two guys giving Half Japanese plaudits that we the audience can barely share in. As they drone on and on, we realize that we are going to get very little insight into the making of the movie. Instead, the film is just a jumping off point for more rock pontification. Had Feuezeig and Kugleberg filled in some of the blanks, instead of incessantly sucking up to the film's subject matter, we may have had a perfect compliment to The Band that Would Be King. Sadly, the only thing this commentary does is supplement the narrators' egos.
Half Japanese: The Band that Would Be King has the unfortunate distinction of coming to this critics desk after a year in which he's seen (and reviewed) Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, DiG!, The Nomi Song: The Klaus Nomi Odyssey, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and X: The Unheard Music. Each one of these films understands that the inherent interest in rock bands doesn't come from praise, but from a detailed deconstruction. We want to know what makes an artist tick, how the realm of performance and fame (or lack thereof) molds their mannerisms and their psychology. The Band that Would Be King does none of this. Instead, it argues for Jad and David Fair's ascension into the higher echelon of entertainment deities without clueing us in on why such sanctification is warranted.
Anyone whose heard ½ Gentlemen/ No Beasts can attest to the fact that no one was making music like the Fair Brothers in the late 70s. Even DEVO wasn't this de-evolved, this foot stompingly primordial. Something as blatantly bizarre as the din made by Half Japanese needs to be explained, not expurgated. But The Band that Would Be King doesn't tell us how this magical racket was made. It just offers up its platitudes and sits back, pleased with itself. And that's really too bad. The Fairs do provide a missing link in punk/lo-fi's development. Yet until another attempt to tell their story comes along, we will only have 'half' the story.
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