Straight Into a Storm


This is truly a band of gentlemen.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John McCauley, Ian O’Neil, Chris Ryan, Dennis Ryan, Robbie Crowell, Shaylyn McCauley, Joe Lusi, Chris Paddock, Paul Marandola, Diego Perez, Brendan Massei, Zeke Hutchins, John Chavez, Justin Collins, Adam Landry, Taylor Goldsmith Dawes, Jana Hunter. Directed by William Miller

 

Deer Tick is far from a household name – are there any rock and roll household names anymore that didn’t arrive via some TV reality competition show a la American Idol or America’s Got Talent? The truth that rock and roll has become a niche genre in pop music; the bands that make it generally have some sort of hip-hop pedigree but I digress somewhat.

The indie rock band Deer Tick has pushed on through what are fairly long odds to go from, as lead singer/songwriter John McCauley proclaims, “being an indie band to being a cult band” and yes, there is a distinction. We see plenty of performance footage from house parties in their native Providence to the film’s nadir, a seven day residency at the 600-seat Brooklyn Bowl to simultaneously celebrate the band’s tenth anniversary and the incoming New Year (the residency culminated with a New Year’s party in 2014). That their most recent footage is three years old robs the film of any immediacy it might have had but then, I don’t think anyone is clamoring for a Deer Tick biography.

And yet we got one and I must admit that it is pretty thorough as these things go. McCauley is a reasonably competent raconteur and his band mates contribute some fairly interesting stories about the life of a touring band in the age of Spotify. When you make a documentary about a cult band, the question becomes “will the movie make any new fans for the band?” The answer is likely not; the performance footage tends to be choppy and often shot on cell phones. You get a sense of some of the songs (and Dennis Ryan explains in depth why he needed to write a song about John Wayne Gacy) but for the most part we just hear snippets. The performances were often characterized by heavy drinking and drugging which makes them far more interesting if you’re present and also drinking and drugging. I will plead guilty to loving the Beat Farmers but being shitfaced with the band will do that for you.

And there’s the rub. The things that make fans rabid about a band is not so much a devotion to their music although that’s where it begins. No, the connection comes through interaction, a feeling of being part of the band which getting drunk with them will kind of do. When you’re as plastered as the band is, you become a part of the show.

Some time is spent on McCauley’s problems with drugs and how marriage and fatherhood have caused him to cut way back on his psychedelic consumption (although not completely eliminated it). There’s also some morbid talk about him joining the so-called 27 Club, the group of artists (mainly rock musicians) whose only qualification for membership is dying at age 27. McCauley was eager to join the club along with the likes of Janis Jopllin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. For anyone who watched the old VH-1 documentary series Behind the Music this will be familiar turf.

I found myself, not being a fan of the band or at least a devoted one, checking my watch a little bit as the film approached its end. There’s no doubt that this is a movie for the fans and the rabid ones at that. If you’re not a fan of the band or unfamiliar with their music you’re way better off checking out some of their recordings on Spotify if you’re interested in really checking them out. I would recommend the War Elephant album as a starting point and in particular “Art is Real (City of Sin)” if you want to fall in love – and who doesn’t want to fall in love with a band? It’s wonderful to make a discovery that only you and a select few are aware of. That makes the emotional connection even stronger. Like all romances though, one must take some caution though; not everyone will understand your love. That doesn’t matter so much though – love is love, even when it is given to a band. At least you’ll always have the music.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is generally the best part.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long and detailed, the film will likely only appeal to big fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shut Up and Play the Hits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tattoo Girls

Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight