The digital age has become a major curse to the major labels: Album sales fell 4 percent in 2005, 4.6 percent in 2006. But for rock and rolling indie entrepreneurs with access to editing gear, digital cameras, and life-rights, a brand-new art form has descended upon the industry's carcass -- the cult-band rockumentary.
Low-budget rock films have been popular since Blackboard Jungle -- think Cocksucker Blues and A Hard Day's Night in the classic-rock era or, more recently, the Decline of Western Civilization series and Social Distortion's Another State of Mind.
But with the proliferation of digital gadgetry, the quantity of rock docs has shot through the roof. It seems that any band that was ever spoken of with any reverence -- and has footage documenting its golden era -- is now represented. From the 13th Floor Elevators' bipolar frontman Roky Erickson to '60s weirdos the Monks to the comical Upper Crust, everyone is now getting the kind of treatment once reserved for music aristocracy and Behind the Music icons. The fact that virtually none of the acts in this new crop of films ever sold many records only makes the genre more fascinating. Even if you've never heard of the artist, its story and the filmmaker's narrative skill often carry the movie.
Tommy White, the 48-year-old guitarist from Boston's UnNatural Axe, has spent the better part of the past eight years assembling his group's story, You'll Pay for This. The quintessential cult act -- one of its songs was covered by Thurston Moore and Richard Hell's side band, Dim Stars -- UnNatural Axe opened for the Police and Squeeze in the '70s. One might assume the band's story would be too obscure to attract much of an audience, but White (himself one of the original kids from the '70s TV classic Zoom) was encouraged after becoming internet-savvy in the '90s.
"I'd Google our name and see that we were everywhere. I could make something to sell," he explains over the phone from his home in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. "I had to finish what I had begun. I had all of these music videos we'd done for our songs -- years before music television -- and I didn't want to just put 12 of them in order on a disc. I wanted narration and film from other projects interwoven."
As White says, digital film technology has finally made it feasible to produce the kind of movie he's always wanted to make. "If you have a story and a good plot line and fascinating players, you can do it," he says. "And besides that, this stuff can't be replicated. From the first wave of punk, unless they invent a time machine, it's the only way to see it."
White says he's spent about $10,000 on the film thus far, and actually expects to recoup his investment. He should. You'll Pay for This is a hoot and a half. (Full disclosure: The author appears as a 22-year-old misogynist thug in footage culled from The Creeper, an unfinished film from '79.) Interspersed with Axe's onstage madness -- including a performance of its punk tour de force "They Saved Hitler's Brains" -- are prototypical cheap rock videos. The clip for "Somebody Told Me," a gruesome parody of a slasher flick, has bassist Frank Dehler hacking his paramour to pieces.
Best of all are the interviews with the group's droll and dry frontman, Richie Parsons. His offhand sincerity and enigmatic worldview are so removed from the typically shallow bravado of a rock musician that he comes across as a sort of red-haired, round-faced Rain Man. In fact, when the film played in Los Angeles last June at the Don't Knock the Rock fest, MC Michael Des Barres peppered White incessantly about the strange and "savant-like" workings of Parsons' mind.
"It's all about the people and their stories," says White -- which, in a nutshell, is what makes his rockumentary work. It's also true of the rest of the genre. In a peculiar inversion, the more famous the subjects, the crappier the film tends to be.
Witness Metallica's Some Kind of Monster, the story of the band's recording of St. Anger and one of the biggest-selling rockumentaries in any era. Because the band members' personas are so deeply ingrained in the public's consciousness, and because those personas are closely based on stereotypes (James Hetfield as tortured songwriter, Lars Ulrich as scheming businessman, Kirk Hammett as peacemaker), the film isn't revelatory except to those who might view the band as a macho monolith.
More important, Metallica's story lacks the main element that makes these smaller films so endearing: Metallica could scarcely be called an underdog, and the pathos of its struggle is tempered by the endless shots of them in their expensive cars and homes, playing with costly toys.
Likewise, size doesn't necessarily matter when it comes to the popularity of concert films. Says Michael DeMonte, Music Video Distributors' sales VP, "We've done concert DVDs and the like for Public Enemy and for Converge/AFI, Agnostic Front, acts that have sizable fan bases, and they just don't sell."
DeMonte says that the cult acts that have remained just outside the mainstream have done best so far: The Pixies' terrific LoudQUIETloud has already sold 25,000 copies.
But the music DVD isn't yet in the ballpark of the CD, no matter how downloading and iPods may have damaged that vehicle. "DVD sales are at best 10 to 20 percent of CD sales," DeMonte says. "After all, you can't drive and watch them. But it really is the only way to see these groups. YouTube's quality is bad, and because some of these acts have such a powerful allure, the compelling rockumentary is the best place to get the whole story in one place."