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Most documentaries about rock bands follow a familiar Icarus-like narrative of ambition, struggle, success, excess, crash and burn. Filmage is not quite so formulaic. Southern California nerdcore pioneers Descendents were “a punk rock Beach Boys” who never flew too high, and never fell too far, but they still had a lasting impact on more commercially successful bands like Green Day, Fall Out Boy and The Offspring. Indeed, famous fans who pay tribute in this film include Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, Mike Watt of Minutemen and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182.
Texas-based first-time directors Deedle LaCoeur and Matt Riggle chronicle the bumpy 35-year career of Descendents and their sister band All in this lightweight but warm-hearted film. Mixing contemporary interviews with clips from the band’s scratchy video archive of their enjoyably chaotic early live shows, Filmage offers an entertaining history lesson about how the alt-rock geeks did not quite inherit the earth. Seemingly aimed at partisan fans more than general viewers, this genial love letter to a minor musical cult opens in selected theaters today ahead of its launch on digital/VOD formats next week.
Formed in 1978 by drummer Bill Stevenson, who later played with hardcore legends Black Flag, Descendents were Big Bang Theory-style science nerds who vented their suburban adolescent angst by embracing the liberating power of punk. More Beavis and Butt-head than Lennon and McCartney, their cartoonish full-throttle protest songs about farts, sexual frustration and romantic failure were not exactly classic rock anthems, though their 1982 debut album Milo Goes to College is still widely regarded as a seminal pop-punk milestone.
The first serious Descendents split occurred in 1987, with singer Milo Aukerman’s amicable departure to pursue a career in biochemistry. Switching their name to All and taking on a revolving rota of new members, the band enjoyed a short-lived boost during the post-Nirvana grunge boom, reaping the collateral rewards of alternative rock’s sudden elevation from fringe subculture to mainstream fashion. “It was the ‘90s,” Stevenson recalls with a grin, “they were just throwing money at anyone who could hold a guitar.”
Following a lively and playful first act, Filmage starts to lose momentum in its mid section as the turnover of interchangeable band members takes on a slightly Groundhog Day feel. In a break from rockumentary tradition, LaCoeur and Riggle fail to unearth any backstage dirt or drama here. Descendents appear to have shunned all drugs besides strong coffee, and never had to deal with the ego-bloating shock of major commercial success. Disappointingly, there is no trail of corpses, psychological meltdowns or embittered ex members to add spice to this real-life soap opera.
The only slightly dark material the directors can muster is a brief aside about Stevenson’s fractious relationship with his overbearing father, followed by his own hair-raising health battles against a massive pulmonary embolism and a benign brain tumor: “he survived two things that would kill a normal person”. These are serious episodes, but largely unrelated to the story. Coming so late in an otherwise light-hearted film, this tonal shift feels like a clumsy bid to add grit and gravitas.
Clearly made by fans, Filmage is an upbeat, unpretentious documentary about an upbeat, unpretentious bunch of musicians. That said, if feels limited in its lack of social or historical context beyond the band’s personal story, with almost zero examination of underground hardcore rock as a reaction against mainstream pop culture in Reagan-era America. Even if Descendents had little personal interest in the politics of punk, they were part of a wider movement that deserves a more searching film than this.
Though fortune and fame ultimately eluded them, Descendents earned a cult reputation as godfathers of a melodic punk-pop genre that nows fills huge arenas and major music festivals. Aukerman rejoined the band in 1995 for the first of several reunions, and the reconstituted line-up remain active to this day, balancing punk rocker duties with parenthood and day jobs. The decades roll by, but the song remains the same.
Production company: Rogue Elephant
Starring: Bill Stevenson, Milo Aukerman, Karl Alvarez, Stephen Egerton, Dave Grohl
Directors: Matt Riggle, Deedle LaCoeur
Screenwriter: Matt Riggle
Producers: Matt Riggle, Deedle LaCoeur, Stefany Strah
Cinematographer: Justin Wilson
Editors: James Rayburn, Deedle LaCoeur, Justin Wilson
Sales company: VMI Worldwide
No rating, 90 minutes
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