Poor MC5. Right from the start, the garage rockers’ moniker commemorated a Motor City on the wane—a nod to the shop-rat life these downriver toughs aimed to transcend. As guitarist Wayne Kramer explains early in MC5: A True Testimonial, just sidestepping that birthright was a major achievement. What happened after that—shakin’ with pot god John Sinclair at the center of a radical political movement in one of the century’s most radical years, clashing with police and the feds, signing with two record labels that never harnessed their live power, kicking out jams that would blueprint punk and gutter-metal but never make them rich—they could never have foreseen.
The opening shots of Testimonial pan Detroit’s dilapidated Grande Ballroom, then morph to an early show. The music fades into the rev of Kramer’s vintage GTO, as the goofy raconteur begins his unifying narration. Late co-founders Fred “Sonic” Smith and frontman Rob Tyner are sorely missed—only a French TV interview captures Smith’s burnout charisma—but bassist Michael Davis, way Lynchian on his desert land, and drummer Dennis Thompson, who brandishes a rifle at one point, provide jolts of pathos and aggression that remind us these were never art-school pretenders to the skids. In an ironic extension of the band’s famous woes, Kramer is currently attempting to halt the film’s release, claiming that at the start of the nine-year production process he was promised yet never given control over the music.
Rare footage ranges from an early TV appearance (the host compares the sound to shells in Vietnam) to love-ins at Belle Isle to their gig at the Chicago ’68 Democratic convention, culled from FBI surveillance tapes. Sinclair shows up to bluster engagingly about turning the dandy Grande into a queasy Kesey swirl of light and squall, and fashioning the Five into leftist lightning rods. Clips memorialize MC5’s legendary show-opener: ersatz fire-sermon (which Lester Bangs compared to Wild in the Streets), decoy boogie, Tyner howling “Kick out the jams motherfuckers!” The film’s best quip belongs to Warholian Danny Fields, who brought the Five to Elektra: “They were like Vikings using deer feet to split up the food—they were so butch!”
If Testimonial‘s a bit prudish about sex—a teasing still of Tyner dry-humping a prone blonde flickers by at one point—it bravely bucks the Behind the Music arc, conveying a reality of constant flux, a sense of the band being jerked in many different directions. A great segment finds Sinclair and Kramer waxing fond over Sinclair’s ill-grounded White Panther Party, while Thompson and Davis admit to caring only about the music. As Sinclair encouraged shambolic experiments, rock critic turned producer John Landau, who produced their second record for Atlantic, imposed sonic lockdown. Just as their proto-Strokes look was coalescing, Fred Smith donned a “Sonic” spacesuit—converting all to Sun Ra glam only to get pelted for it by a crowd of British teddy boys. The film’s outdoor sync-sound version of “Looking at You” provides an oasis of cohesion. Outside forces are shut out and the stage becomes the world. The band’s mid-jam kicklines have aged poorly, but it’s only in those moments of muscular exuberance that all players seem to vibrate to the same string.