Revenge of the Mekons: Film Review

Frank Swider
This affectionate portrait shines a well-deserved spotlight on a band that has never managed to convert their cult following into mainstream success.

Joe Angio's documentary chronicles the decades-long career of the critically-acclaimed, genre-shifting band.

Joe Angio’s documentary about The Mekons could just as easily have taken its moniker from one of their albums: The Curse of the Mekons. Documenting the long-lived cult band’s decades-long career -- during which they’ve garnered endless critical acclaim and rabid fandom while never establishing a commercial foothold -- Revenge of the Mekons is a buoyant exploration of the musicians’ devotion to their art and each other. Receiving its world premiere at the Doc NYC festival, the film might finally bring the band the greater attention it has rightfully deserved.

Founded in Leeds, England in 1977 by a group of art school students, The Mekons began life as a punk band in which its members could barely play their instruments. This fit in well with the punk ethos: as the Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham points out, "You didn’t have to be a good musician."

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They nonetheless received considerable attention from music critics, including future filmmaker Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), who bemusedly reads excerpts from a rave review of the band she wrote for Melody Maker.

The Mekons came into their own during the Thatcher era, when they performed benefit shows for the miners whose strike was so brutally squashed by the Iron Lady. Over the years, their musical style shifted as they embraced such genres as English folk music and eventually American country music, becoming one of the first-ever alt-country bands.

The current eight-member collective has remained the same since the early '90s, and has forged on despite their lack of commercial success and a series of ill-fated signings by major record labels. As singer Sally Timms sardonically says in a comment that can easily assume a double meaning, "Sold out is a term that never comes into our lives." An executive for an indie record label points out that "a good-selling Mekons record is about 8,000 copies."

Using a mixture of archival and contemporary footage as well as interviews with the band’s members, music critics and such fans as the well-known writers Luc Sante and Jonathan Franzen, the filmmaker affectionately chronicles The Mekons' long history that includes forays with such artists as Vito Acconci and Kathy Acker. The band’s communal nature is well conveyed in a sequence depicting their collective songwriting process, as well as a charming coda in which its members are seen reaffirming their "vows" to each other in a pagan wedding ceremony.

Doc NYC (Roseland Films)
Director/producer: Joe Angio
Directors of photography: Joe Angio, Jean-Louis Schuller
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Not rated, 95 min.