With voices like a sackful of rusty hinges, ramshackle playing a broken string away from careening madness, and a repertoire filled with itchy-balled ballads like “Fucking Sailors in Chinatown,” the Holy Modal Rounders came on the Greenwich Village acoustic scene of the ’60s like horndogs humping the folk movement’s leg. Forty years later, they stand as perhaps the truest heirs to the Harry Smith Anthology’s wild and woolly Americana—a point Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul C. Lovelace’s affectionate doc makes with a minimum of fuss and lots of bawdy hilarity.
The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose is a chronicle of the on-again/off-again four-decade friendship and collaboration of Rounders founders Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber—the former a loony-tune savant and reformed speed freak turned peace-abiding family man, the latter a manic libertine and escape artist who, according to one observer, “would take LSD for a toothache.” As with so many great bands, the thing that gives the group its rangy energy—the volatile marriage of Stampfel’s muse and Weber’s rascally spirit—is also what threatens to rip it apart.
See the group play a side-splitting psychotropic Laugh-In gig with drummer Sam Shepard(!); hear everyone from Dennis Hopper to Robert Christgau testify convincingly to the Rounders’ importance; then watch helplessly along with the filmmakers as the band’s 40th-anniversary celebration takes an unexpected (if not unprecedented) plunge toward the crapper. But the Rounders’ best music is folk without nostalgia, in a rough and rowdy present tense—and if the movie doesn’t convince you of its genius, Stampfel’s live post-film performance opening night at Anthology (with Paul Thornton of the Godz and Jeffrey Lewis & the Jitters) will send you down to Chinatown.