Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Directed by Mandy Stein, Benjamen Logan
(USA 2012, 104 minutes)
Sunday, May 20, 9:00 p.m. at Pacific Place
Wednesday, May 23, 9:00 p.m. at Harvard Exit
I remember getting the ROIR tape of the Bad Brains’ first album in the mail for review in my fanzine in 1982. ROIR, a cassette-only label at the time, perhaps in response to the development of the Walkman, sent me other releases I loved (the Black punk-free jazz of Alphonia Tims & the Flying Tigers, certainly of note). But the self-titled, actually released debut Bad Brains put a pinch on my own mind. A nerve-wracking, never-done-before puzzle of jolting thrash songs and blissful reggae jams, it was some of the very best hardcore-based music my fellow punks would hear (and that includes your generation, too).
Finding out from this documentary that it was recorded fully live on a 4-track in the back sound booth of a narrow punk club in New York stuffed with their friends from the Beastie Boys and other bands, is astonishing. Though it doesn’t necessarily surprise — Bad Brains are so tight they’re terrifying. They’re so tight they don’t mind getting loose with a Jamaican groove every few songs. They started out at the very beginning as Mind Power, learning to truly play licks that were beyond rock even before going punk. Metal would unwind from their core over the years, influencing Black Flag, Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine, and arguably setting the world up for Sub Pop’s first wave of alternative chartbusters via their power-riffed release on SST (I Against I). If you love ambitious, anarchic punk energy, creative hard rock, with a merging of political and spiritual and personal topics, you need to be seriously studying the scant output of the band from the 80s. All of it gold, and a lot of played and chatted about in A Band in DC by Rollins, Ian MacKaye, and other punks not from their hometown of D.C. Where they indeed got banned from the clubs.
That was probably the fault of frontman HR, born Paul Hudson, who will be the person most discussed in the reviews of this excellent biopic, which mostly induces flush fanboy giddiness with killer old footage and flyers and super rare 45s. But band-mates, crew members, and famous associates aren’t afraid to talk about him walking into a room and cooking a fish and then just walking out as it burned, or beating up their long-suffering manager (holding down the position since 1983!) during a previous reunion tour, or burning a Texas band in a weed deal that marked the whole group as troublemakers in the gossipy, morally amorphous American punk scene of 1985.
Fugazi’s MacKaye may have had his life completely changed by encountering them live in his boyhood city, but during a conversation with bassist Darryl Jenifer in a punk rock record store doesn’t let them off the hook for allegations of homophobia regarding that incident — a shadowing incident that seems to be brought up again during the on-strike antics of HR in concert during the 2007 tour, which is the opening dramatic moment to the film and when it falls apart completely (almost, again). (Not really, in 2012 they’re all back recording another album, with HR.) It would have been nice to have some feedback from the Big Boys, but their lead singer passed away in 2005, and the conflict was probably between he and HR.
Bad Brains tried it without the rumored-to-be-schizophrenic HR in the 90s, when their buzz-saw-on-funk musical approach could have made tons of new fans. But it just doesn’t quite work without the whirling dervish, center-of-human-storm “throat,” even though collaborators Dr. Know (guitars), Darryl Jenifer (bass), and drummer Earl Hudson huge downers when he’s in the mix. But there’s up times as well — some of which can hardly be explained by the film (their extremely generous early manager who kept buying them equipment, vans, and rehearsal spaces for possibly mysterious reasons), and others which probably should have attempted explaining (what exactly is wrong with HR, and are there environmental forces in his past which could explain his behavior?).
Directors Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan don’t get terribly personal with the musicians’ pasts before they started playing together as mutual fans of jazz and funk in 1978. But they do a more than satisfactory job of telling a story of how their lives were changed by one of them bringing in a Dead Boys LP, and inspired the others to create the windstorms of sound and sneer that that American punk band excelled at. From Parliament-Funkadelic to Stanley Clarke to Earth, Wind, & Fire, they were always transfixed by the collective, bass-infused big beat. Black Dots, their first attempt at recording material in their post-jazz/funk mode was recorded in 1979, and wasn’t released until 1996. (You should check it out; it’s extraordinary and will explain a lot about the changes in American punk post-1976.) As hardcore took root in D.C., the Bad Brains transformed their sound to toughen up, but never really stopped experimenting — first with dub-reggae vibes like the English punk bands they loved; later on with just about anything else considered music. They were a live band I would never miss whenever I got the most remote chance to see them. Except when HR wasn’t involved. And that’s the rub.
The dramatic bits of emotional catharsis between band members and band workers is handled effectively and very honestly (without being sensationalistic), and the cartoons and animation help lighten the direness of many anecdotes. But the resonance audiences will be the superb live concert footage of four Black men tossing a world of music into one streakingly fast spinning top of sound that sucks the air out of your lungs. Love them and accept this as their apologetic, or love their music and resent them based on rumors about their past, but you can’t deny their power. Stein and Logan captures it perfectly, and cannot wait for the commercially-released DVD which should have more interviews (I could listen to these guys talk, and their friends from the early hardcore scene, talk for hours). Even HR, talking about the snakes and spiders in the wall reporting back on him. (And oh yeah, stay till the end of the credits to hear Moby doing a breathy techno-pop take on Bad Brains’ splendidly stoic “Sailin’ On.” It’s kinda cute.)