What with post-Napster ennui, SoundScan fraud, A&R layoffs, and artists suing labels left and right, it’s no wonder that several of the rock docs in the “Stop, Look & Listen!” series are about not making it. Still, the wide range of musical obscurity on display in these films suggests that there have never been more ways for a band to remain largely unnoticed.
Essentially the American Movie of rockumentaries, Rolf Belgum’s Driver 23 follows Dan Cleveland—Minneapolitan courier by day, prog metal frontman by night—who may not be an artist, although he’s definitely a performer. Designing an elaborate (and woefully ineffective) rope-and-pulley system to lug his gear, medicating himself with a specially calibrated mix of psychotropics, suffering apparent hypochondria and abundant bad taste, and determining to record his debut CD by any means necessary, this earnest headbanger philosophizes his career every backward step of the way. “It’s kinda weird to quote Scripture,” he says at one point, before likening his iron will to that of the prophet Ezekiel. The requisite sequel (The Atlas Moth) can’t help seeming redundant, but Driver 23 is as funny as Spinal Tap, and infinitely more harrowing—not least for the tragicomedy of Cleveland’s failure to note that his deepest feelings are being rendered in half-formed musical clichés and one overwrought metaphor after another.
While Belgum equates the flailing rocker’s delusions of grandeur with a sort of success, director Dov Kelemer mistakes his more talented subjects’ self-pity for drama in Won’t Anybody Listen. Complete with somber piano chords accompanying the shot of a crumpled flyer blowin’ in the wind, this woe-is-them study of the So-Cal Star Search winners in NC-17 (whom the L.A. Times unhelpfully described as R.E.M. meets Zeppelin) at least bears out one interviewed critic’s observation that a band getting signed is like a mouse falling into the mouth of a pet-shop snake. Conversely, Ben Wolfinsohn’s snarky tour-film Friends Forever trades commerciality for intimate charm in portraying the titular noise band, whose exploding plastic inevitable spews forth from a vintage VW van to crowds of several at a time. The group’s cross-country “mission to save rock” culminates on the curb of the Olympia Film Society in Washington with a dry-ice-and-strobe-light extravaganza—and free cassettes for the audience!
Such DIY cultdom couldn’t be more legendary than in Jana Chytilová’s Plastic People of the Universe, named for the dissonant Czech dissidents who saw their love of VU turn into a political cause and then jail time while their nation was being “normalized.” Running down the pertinent details of word-of-mouth barn gigs and secret-police harassment (with the help of Václav Havel and Lou Reed as talking heads), Chytilová’s film is too hagiographic by half. But in light of frontman Milan Hlavsa’s untimely death earlier this year (well after the doc was in the can), the PP are probably due for a Behind the Music episode.
Considerably less appealing is Shanti Guy’s Texas Night Train, one of the series’ few narrative features (it opens September 21 for a longer run), inspired by the rockabilly ditty “Mopping the Floor With My Baby’s Head.” Narrated by its drifter protagonist (Chuck Huber) in pseudo-poetic voice-over (“The chatter can become unbearable,” he says in a rare moment of clarity), this repugnant DV Detour gives an end-credit shout-out to “Martin Scorsess, Quinton Tarentino and Buick”—and the influences show. The lyrics to said ditty make clear from the start what headless wonders are forthcoming, so the rest is a slow train to nowhere that any rockabilly fan would ever want to go.