'Sublime': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Courtesy of Interscope Films
Hey hey we're the junkies.

Oscar-winning director Bill Guttentag charts the chaotic rise and druggy demise of Nineties rock trio Sublime in this retrospective documentary.

There is a tragically familiar crash-and-burn story arc to Bill Guttentag’s documentary about Southern California rockers Sublime, who enjoyed a brief burst of fame in the mid-1990s with their party-friendly fusion of punk, ska, hip-hop and reggae. The Long Beach trio were on the brink of mainstream success when their 28-year-old frontman Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in a San Francisco hotel on May 25, 1996. He left behind a wife, a 1-year-old son, two devastated bandmates and a newly recorded album. That self-titled album went on to became a multi-platinum smash hit two months after the singer's death, peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard charts.

Backed by Interscope Films, a division of the same Universal Music Group conglomerate that owns the band’s back catalog, Sublime is a straight rise-and-fall chronicle which rarely steps outside the bland conventions of officially endorsed promotional documentaries. Splicing archive footage with contemporary interviews, Guttentag pays dutiful respect to Nowell’s legacy but fails to make a convincing case for his genius. World premiering at Tribeca, this technically competent tribute lacks the deeper social and historical dimension that might have given it wider appeal outside the band’s immediate fan base. With 17 million Sublime albums sold, the filmmakers are clearly banking more on brand loyalty and Nineties nostalgia than on reaching out to new converts.

A five-time Oscar nominee with two Academy Award wins to his name — for the documentary shorts You Don’t Have to Die (1989) and Twin Towers (2003) — Guttentag has a long track record of tackling serious social and political issues, which makes him an unlikely choice to direct a rock doc, particularly one about a bunch of weed-smoking, beer-chugging party animals who appear to have lived and died by the Spinal Tap maxim, “Have a good time, all the time.” Which is a perfectly valid lifestyle choice, but not one that lends itself to gripping cinematic treatment.

The wayward child of wealthy divorcees, Nowell comes across in the film as a mostly sweet but troubled soul, a college dropout and beach bum whose battle with hard drugs unleashed his darker loose-cannon side. Besides the singer’s former bandmates Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, Guttentag interviews his mother Nancy, sister Kellie and widow Troy. Gwen Stefani and her No Doubt cohorts, longtime friends who toured and played with Sublime, also feature prominently alongside fellow Los Angeles ska-punk veterans Fishbone. Guttentag shoots most of these talking heads against a bright video backdrop of SoCal street art, an eye-pleasing device which lends some colorful local context to the story.

Alternating between cherubic blond surfer-dude and bloated skinhead bruiser, depending on his drug intake that week, Nowell was blessed with a sweetly soulful voice that one interviewee likens to Marvin Gaye. But Sublime's lightweight keg-party sing-along anthems never had much wit or subtlety, and they have not aged gracefully. Their 1995 breakthrough hit “Date Rape” would struggle to get radio play today, while Nowell’s casual misogyny, cultural appropriation and snickering locker-room humor would probably not get the free pass they once did. Of course, it is unfair to judge the pop culture of yesteryear by 21st century standards, and rock music is rarely very politically correct. Even so, a more thorough documentary might at least have attempted to explore Sublime’s juvenile frat-boy side, and place the band within the broader context of the progressive-minded alt-rock boom spearheaded by Nirvana.

There are touchingly tender memories of Nowell in Sublime, especially from his widow Troy, plus a few welcome flashes of dark humor, too. "I just can’t work with people who are actively smoking crack," explains one exasperated collaborator. "This was the beginning of the Breaking Bad-style stuff,” another recalls. But Guttentag seems to have little investment in this story, never digging deeper than a dispassionate journeyman director. Nowell plainly had charm and charisma to burn, and his death was a tragic loss. But his musical legacy remains a minor footnote in the rock history books, and this ho-hum screen memorial is unlikely to persuade anybody otherwise.

Production companies: Interscope Films, 1891 Productions
Director: Bill Guttentag
Screenwriters: Bill Guttentag, Nayeema Raza
Producers: Bill Guttentag, Nayeema Raza, Terry Leonard, Dave Kaplan, Peter Paterno
Cinematographer: Stephen Kazmierski
Editors: John David Allen, Jim Stewart
Composer: David Kahne
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Sales: Endeavor Content

93 minutes