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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

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We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

2005, D:Tim Irwin, P:Keith Schieron

We Jam Econo is a bit like the Minutemen themselves: direct, no frills, straight to the point, emotionally and artistically honest. I was a little surprised that producer Keith Schieron was asked in the Q&A session how he and director Tim Irwin had chosen the Minutemen as a subject for a documentary, because I thought their love for the band was obvious throughout.

The movie is structurally uncomplicated: it starts with guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt's boyhood meeting in their hometown of San Pedro, and covers the band's history through Boon's death at the end of 1985. (There's no mention of Watt and Hurley's subsequent band fIREHOSE, although its guitarist Ed Crawford does appear in a brief interview segment.) Watt drives much of the movie — literally, in his van, around San Pedro. He points out places important in the Minutemen's history, reacts to other drivers and scooter riders with apparent courtesy, and, in the band's argot, "spiels." (Drummer George Hurley was also interviewed, and offers trenchant and funny comments, but gets much less screen time.) D. Boon speaks primarily in an interview shot in 1985, shortly before their tour supporting R.E.M.

Interviews with the band members are supplemented by performance footage and segments with the band's friends and peers, a veritable who's who of '80s punk rock that includes John Doe, Thurston Moore, Colin Newman, Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, Richards Hell and Meltzer, and a big chunk of Black Flag's large revolving cast: Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Kira Roessler, and Dez Cadena. (Ginn's label, SST, released nearly all of the Minutemen's material, and he "signed" the band after their first show.)

The Minutemen epitomized the idea that the core of "punk" is DIY — not only in the sense of doing your own thing without support from corporate structures, but also doing your thing, without regard to genre orthodoxy. The Minutemen rejected the musical (and thematic) limitations of hardcore, incorporating funk, country, and even prog-rock elements into their frenetic stew. Maybe even more radically, the Minutemen embodied and advocated the idea that art could inform and transform the lives of people who weren't rich and didn't go to art school. And finally, they defied the rigidity of the punk rock dress code. Rollins and Biafra both famously lectured their audiences for wearing "uniforms" and being conformist in their noncomformity, but the Minutemen walked the flannel-when-flannel-wasn't-cool walk (a shot of Boon gyrating in his crazy ratty slip-on dress shoes had the audience roaring).

One of the movie's most startling moments comes early on. The band is playing. There's a shot of a heaving knot of people pressed up against a stage in sweaty exhilaration, then a close up of Hurley drumming with his typical freneticism. I was distracted for several seconds by Hurley's extreme '80s hair, which incorporated a plume-like structure that seemed to lunge from his head like some bleached amoeboid creature. It didn't register at first that visible behind Hurley and his hair were row upon row of arena seats — all empty. The band was playing like mad, the faithful were transported, and the masses were oblivious.

Records by The Velvet Underground and Big Star sold poorly when they were first released, but legend has it that everyone who bought them joined bands. The Minutemen were a bit like that, too. It's interesting that the interview clips show such a consensus of opinion about the Minutemen. The speakers come from diverse elements of the punk rock community — hardcore, pop-punk, art-punk — but many say basically the same thing: incredible musicians, but by the time you get a handle on a Minutemen song, they're already playing the next one. They challenged their audience, the audience wasn't always up for the challenge, and that audience never grew very large.

Irwin and Schieron wisely chose not to impose a narrator on the band's history. They also commendably avoided the temptation to force a Hollywood-y "story arc" on the movie. There's no talk of how the broader exposure of the R.E.M. tour might have affected the Minutemen's future if Boon hadn't died. The film doesn't completely shy away from Boon and Watt's legendary shouting matches, but it's much more about the music than "Behind the Music." For example, Kira Roessler appears without the context of her marriage to Watt, and drugs aren't even mentioned. In the Q&A session, Schieron said they simply asked their interviewees to talk about the Minutemen rather than presenting prepared questions, and that they later edited the interviews to fit the chronology (guided roughly by the band's discography). This approach is clearly simpatico with the Minutemen's aesthetic, and it makes for a powerful and affecting film. By letting the band and their peers speak for themselves (rather than speaking for them), We Jam Econo demonstrates why the Minutemen inspired such passionate responses.

Movies about rock bands can be divided into two categories: fans-only affairs, and films that can make new fans for a band. This is definitely one of the latter — if you've heard of the Minutemen but never heard much by them, this is a fine place to start. It doesn't presume you've got much prior knowledge, and it provides ample evidence of what the fuss was all about.

Schieron mentioned that a DVD release is already in the works, with additional interviews and live footage planned (yay!), but The Pathetic Caverns officially urges you to support the film in a theater if you get a chance. (If you're in the Boston area, the film is playing at the Coolidge Corner Movie Theater in Brookline through July 14, 2005.)

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