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
Tattoo Girls


Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star in happier times...sorta.

Big Star in happier times…sorta.

(2012) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Jody Stephens, Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey, Rick Clark, Mike Mills, Alexis Taylor, Tav Falco, David Bell, Sara Stewart, John Fry, Carole Manning, Steve Rhea, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough. Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In many ways Big Star was the ultimate cult band. They only released three sparsely-distributed albums from 1972-78 before fracturing apart, but those albums! That music! It’s some of the greatest music written during the rock era, and nearly every musician with any reverence for rock and roll in the 35 years since then has been influenced by their sound – from REM and the jangle pop of the 80s to the Replacements and the punks of the 90s to Hot Chip and the electropop of the 21st Century.

The band came out of Memphis, whose rock and roll legacy has tended to lean towards the blues and Southern boogie so when these guys appeared it must have turned a head or two. At the front was Alex Chilton, the boy wonder who had a number one hit in his teens with the Box Tops, and Chris Bell, a lonely and melancholy genius who worked at Ardent Studios (the band’s home base and source of their record label) as an engineer. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens rounded out the line-up.

Their first album, #1 Record, got great critical acclaim but Ardent, whose distribution was handled by the soul label Stax which was looking to make in-roads in the pop and rock markets – or should I say mis-handled – often frustrated consumers who read glowing reviews in the press but would then write the band to ask where they could buy the album which very often wouldn’t be in the bins. The band didn’t have a clue where to find them either.

Bell would wind up quitting over the lack of support for the band from their label. He was also hurt about Chilton getting the lion’s share of the attention, despite his own significant contributions to the Big Star sound. He’d go on to a checkered post-Big Star career, recording I Am the Cosmos – an amazing album that is essentially the lost Big Star album – but perishing in a car accident before it was released.

The band soldiered on as a trio, releasing Radio City in 1974 only to see nearly all of the albums that were pressed left in a warehouse that later burned with the albums in them, although some copies apparently survived and made it overseas. Recording sessions for a third album for the band, now down to Chilton and Stephens (with session musicians augmenting the two) showed Chilton’s frustration. He almost deliberately sabotaged the songs and made them unlistenable although a select few of them – like Stephens’ “For You” – were still full of ragged beauty. The third album, variously titled Third and Sister Lovers never got an official release during the band’s lifetime although bootlegged copies were available pretty in a widespread fashion (it finally was given an official release in the 90s by Rykodisc).

The band never got the due that they deserved while they were alive – Chilton passed away in 2010, Hummel not long after and Bell, as I mentioned, in 1978 (Stephens, the only surviving band member, continues to work for Ardent today) although their cult status followed them around for years. Chilton, somewhat embittered by the experience I think, flat-out ignored requests to play Big Star songs during his solo shows and more or less disowned the band until a surprise reunion concert with Stephens (with Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer filling out the band) in 1993 at the University of Missouri, which led to a tour which led to another album although by then the magic was clearly gone.

Still, their memory lives on in all the music that they recorded (the best-known of which is “In the Street,” the opening title track to That 70s Show and the oft-covered ”September Gurls” which was the closest they got to a hit) and all the music that they inspired.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love; they had very little archival footage to work with and so as a result it has a bit of a talking head feel to it but the interviews are in the main, incredibly interesting and moving – there was a lot of pain associated with the band and when you watch Chris Bell’s sister Sara Stewart break down a little, saying in a soft, hurt voice “I hated the band” to which her brother David Bell said in a comforting voice “I know. You’d rather have him back than have the music out there,” your heart breaks just a little. Still in all, you can listen to the music of Big Star – most of you probably have never heard it – and be dazzled. I hope that a lot of people get to see this documentary mainly because it would be ironic and fitting that this wonderful, inspiring music be exposed to a greater number of people long after the band that recorded it is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some heartfelt and heartrending interviews.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of performance or archival video.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name Big Star doesn’t refer to Chilton’s success with the Box Tops nor is it an egotistical prognostication of the band’s future – rather they named themselves after a Memphis-area grocery store chain, one of which was near Ardent Studios.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has embarked on the festival circuit after a strong start at SXSW.



NEXT: Off-Shoring Part 1