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Punk has long been associated with New York, and flower-power psychedelia is synonymous with San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. But some rock historians, purveyors and artists trace both genres to mid-’60s Los Angeles and a garage band called, appropriately enough, the Seeds. In the engaging documentary The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard, first-time director Neil Norman pays tribute to the quartet and the city where it flourished. His affection for the musicians is firsthand and tinged with family pride: The indie label that was the band’s recording home was founded by Norman’s father, and it’s the company that produced this film.
That relationship notwithstanding, Norman’s chronicle of the group’s brief heyday and the long, strange aftermath for frontman Sky Saxon is no mere lovefest, although a more robust critical discussion would have enriched it. Passages of eloquent but overwritten narration, delivered with verve by Pamela Des Barres, too often smack of PR and, rather than smoothing transitions in the narrative, make them clunkier.
Though it runs out of steam and would have benefited from a tighter structure, the doc compiles terrific archival clips and stills, and draws energy and sharp insights from new interviews. For the road beyond its world premiere in the American Cinematheque’s L.A. Rock on Film series, the elements of nostalgia and discovery will be strong draws among rock fans. It should hit a sweet spot for older Boomers especially — those who remember the L.A. underground scene the film evokes, with its long-gone nightspots like the Barn and Bido Lito’s, and those who experienced it secondhand, through the music.
Interviewees include music-biz insiders who knew the Seeds (Johnny Echols, of the band Love; Runaways impresario Kim Fowley, who worked with them) and a few who didn’t (musical descendants The Bangles; admirer Iggy Pop, who as a talking head might be rock’s answer to John Waters in terms of subversive wit and charm). Notably absent are any members of Buffalo Springfield, an act that shared many a bill with the Seeds.
There’s brief recent footage of drummer Rick Andridge, who died in 2011, two years after Saxon. The surviving band members, guitarist Jan Savage and keyboardist Daryl Hooper, reminisce amicably, separately and side by side. They contributed signature — some would say groundbreaking — instrumental flavor to the Seeds’ proto-punk-meets-acid-rock sound, but as Fowley observes with typical verbal flair, singer/lyricist Saxon was the one “who conducted electricity.”
Born Richard Marsh and raised Mormon, he was an exceptionally seductive frontman, as is evident from clips. How he went from Sunset Strip celebrity to Topanga Canyon nomad is in some ways a quintessential L.A. story, and one that takes up much of the film’s final third, in repetitive fashion. For a while the former sartorial sensation was a white-robed member of one of Southern California’s most prominent communal experiments, the group profiled in the excellent 2012 documentary The Source Family.
At their peak in 1966-67, recording with top-notch engineers thanks to the influence of GNP Crescendo Records’ Gene Norman, the Seeds reached the Top 40 with “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Most of their hits, though, were regional. Norman frames their story as a matter of woulda-coulda-shoulda, but he doesn’t convincingly make the case that international rock stardom was theirs for the taking, if only their lead singer hadn’t dropped so much acid. As with the Ramones, another ahead-of-the-curve band, a smooth career trajectory eluded them for a number of reasons.
The group’s particular brand of sullen exuberance does come across loud and clear, though — even, or perhaps especially, in a generation-gap clip from the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law. It’s a delirious pop-culture oddity: star Eve Arden furrowing her brow in mild alarm while a cape-wearing Saxon and his bandmates perform their full-of-attitude hit single in the suburban living-room set.
Production companies: GNP Crescendo Records
Cast: Sky Saxon, Daryl Hooper, Jan Savage, Rick Andridge, Iggy Pop, Johnny Echols, Kim Fowley, Susanna Hoffs, Debbi Peterson, Victoria Peterson, Bruce Johnston, Rodney Bingenheimer
Narrator: Pamela Des Barres
Director: Neil Norman
Producers: Neil Norman, Alec Palao
Directors of photography: Scott Goldrich, Nick McKinney, Matt Pakucko, Bob Kames Jr.
Editor: Dan Schaarschmidt
Music: The Seeds
No rating, 112 minutes
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