Rock 'n' Revolt
Most current "rockumentaries" are very forgettable, for fans only. Spliced together by the thread of a single personality, group, concert or tour, today's roxploitation crop abandons the laid-back effectiveness of Jazz on a Summer's Day, Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, fixed-camera Concert for Bangladesh, HBO's A Black and White Night Live, to favor unfriendly dark graininess, showboating, preening interviews and occasional awkward social commentary.
Flawed, David C. Thomas' MC5: A True Testimonial is nevertheless an exception and a good film. Directing and editing this his feature-length début, the guitarist, former radio music director, and advertising film and sound editor, intelligently combines rarely shown film, TV news and home footage, stills and past and present interviews, in a complete package. The one quibble, indeed, is that the result is too complete: in spite of early manager John Sinclair's liner-notes claim that group, sound and setting must be "taken in the whole context . . . there is no separation," at one minute less than two hours this film treats two threads that finally unravel somewhere about the two-thirds mark.
Regardless of a viewer's opinion of the music -- not my personal cup of tea, by the way -- the first hour and some is a nicely patterned general consideration of America's critical late 1960s, with Vietnam, the Democratic National Convention, assassinations, Black Panthers, campus unrest, Weathermen, urban riots. In retirement today, among campfire, dog, barrel cactus and Arizona mountains, MC5 bassist Michael Davis chuckles that they were only rough kids playing rock 'n' roll, far from "role models for the new world." But, unsophisticated "hoodlums from downriver," in the words of leader and guitarist Wayne Kramer, the band got swept into the social-political turmoil of generational rebelliousness.
High school friends from the blue-collar side of the tracks who flourished with a raw energy of live performance that essentially eluded commercial studio-record companies Elektra and then Atlantic, who could not deal with their music and shenanigans, they were pushed to center stage, only to fall apart. The disintegration is a second theme, a poignant one, since "nobody could've saved the MC5 except the five of us," but although Thomas develops and handles it well, this last half-hour or so gives the sense of belonging to another film. But as with, say, "broken-backed" Huckleberry Finn, the break-and-shift does not mean that the audience will feel cheated.
Memories fuzz, but the name "MC5" was randomly made up to sound like an auto replacement part and only subsequently taken to stand for Motor City (or other, obscene combinations). Truly the hard-living working-class lads that Mick Jagger and crew could only pretend to be, the five developed their loud abrasive stage style in Detroit venues and promotional "Battles of the Bands." They would soon be sucked willy-nilly onto the political platform as "house band" of the Sinclair-founded White Panther Party, with police and FBI harassment over drugs and obscenity, and a free Lincoln Park concert during the Chicago confrontations of August '68.
Two died young -- vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (married to punk priestess Patti Smith since 1980) -- but earlier interviews with them, and present ones with now short-haired Kramer, Davis, drummer Dennis Thompson, other associates, and tender-talking ex-wives, detail the descent and demise of the group. The spotlight and the Establishment were much more than they could deal with, for under that challenging street-fighting surface, they were unworldly innocents. Drugs, alcohol, personality clashes, disagreements about musical direction and, one supposes, the changing times themselves, did the rest.
Rolling Stone magazine's "punk before its time . . . counterculturalists in extremis . . . unrivalled rock & roll," ahead of and simultaneously of their time -- Elektra later quietly reissued the first album -- the sad-fated MC5 is nicely served in this film, the smoke of a threatened legal battle over "misrepresentation" notwithstanding. Centered on the era and the band members rather than easy canned performances of the raucous music, MC5: A True Testimonial is on the A-side of pop music-as-culture covers.
(Released by Avatar Films; not rated by MPAA.)