Category Archives: Documentary

New Wave: Dare to Be Different [Documentary]

“The Story of the Most Influential Radio Station in America” is the subtitle for this documentary about WLIR, a Long Island, NY radio station that championed the new wave music that spewed forth from punk rock. New Wave: Dare to Be Different documents the rise and fall of both the radio station and the music itself by interviewing not only the DJs and other WLIR personnel, but members of many of the bands themselves. Billy Idol, Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran), Mick Score (A Flock of Seagulls), Howard Jones and more tell about their experiences in breaking in America thanks to the station’s support of their music.

In the early Eighties new wave music was rarely heard on the radio. When it was, you generally heard it on a college radio station, such as KCMU here in Seattle. (My own radio alma mater at the University of Washington; now it’s called KEXP and can be heard all over the world.) WLIR was one of the few commercial stations playing this kind of music (though Seattle had Stephen Rabow and KZAM), and because of its proximity to New York City and the headquarters of the record labels, as well as the staff’s enthusiasm, the station was instrumental in the early careers of U2, Depeche Mode, Blondie and many more artists. The story itself seems kind of typical: floundering FM station playing the same ’70s rock as everyone else decides to make a left turn and play something else, does so, develops a small but dedicated audience, turns it into something quite successful, and then has the rug pulled out from under it thanks to some seemingly tiny altercation. Years later, someone decides to make a documentary about said station and here we are with a handy DVD to watch it all unfold. Maybe the story seems typical to me because it is very similar to that of KCMU and probably loads of other college and minor league commercial radio stations in America. It’s a Cinderella story, that’s for sure.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they got all the right people involved, from the DJs and staff to the bands (many of them big enough that they don’t need this exposure). It’s a bit peculiar that the movie is called New Wave: Dare to Be Different, and yet in the film itself the DJs talk about how they never referred to WLIR as a new wave radio station. Deciding on a title must have been a marketing decision. (I mean, if you’re gonna produce a documentary you probably wanna make your money back, right?) Regardless of title, it’s a compelling story that has more meaning every day our culture continues to be gobbled up by big corporations and then spewed back at us in handy, easy-to-explain soundbites and nuggets that lack the life force that birthed and formed it in the first place.

3/5 (MVD Visual DBD 100, 2018)

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Here to Be Heard: The Story of The Slits [DVD]

Here’s a “punk” band that rarely gets talked about here in the USA, THE SLITS. A new documentary, Here to Be Heard: The Story of The Slits, shows that the initially all-female group deserves more accolades than they generally get. There at punk’s inception, the girls – lead vocalist Ari Up was only a teenager when The Slits got going – embraced the DIY ethos that was part of punk, taking up instruments because they figured if someone like Sid Vicious or Billy Idol could do it, then why not them?

First guitarist Kate Korus, first bassist Suzy Gutsy, drummer Palmolive and Ari put together the band and started to work up songs, eventually landing their first gig with The Clash, Buzzcocks and Subway Sect. In rapid succession Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt joined, taking over The Slits’ guitar and bass slots, went through numerous managers, got signed to Island Records, put out an album, etc. All of that is your standard “story of the band” fare. But what lies at the bottom – the foundation of The Slits’ story and their ongoing legacy – is that they were pretty much the first all-female punk or new wave band. And what gets to its original members (Albertine says so herself in the doc), is that they weren’t setting out to be an all-girl band in the first place. That is just how it initially shook out. We learn in Here to Be Heard that quite soon Palmolive was sacked and a guy called Budgie took over the drum throne. He, of course, went on to an amazing career as the drummer for Siouxsie and the Banshees. And he wasn’t the only male to serve.

William E. Badgley does a pretty tidy job of telling The Slits’ slightly convoluted story, taking over on a project executive producer Jennifer Shagawat had worked on with Ari Up herself until Up died in 2009. All of the band’s original and subsequent members, aside from Up, are interviewed here, as well as punk/reggae legend Don Letts, Neneh Cherry, former managers, punk scholars and more. (What, no Henry Rollins or Elvis Costello? Were they busy??) Here to Be Heard is a highly interesting and watchable documentary, and the DVD contains an additional twenty minutes of bonus material, including live footage.

Ari Up, it should be noted if you don’t know already, was only 14 when she started the band. A very strong personality she was, and an amazingly talented, driven and complex woman she turned out to be. The band’s 1979 debut album, Cut, still stands as a punk music must-have. Here you get a chance to hear her and the band’s story from the band members themselves. That is pretty rare these days, if you’ve spent any time watching the numerous and sometimes dubious documentaries available on Netflix and Amazon.

3/5 (MVD Visual CADIZDVD166, 2018)

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The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation [DVD, BD]

The Woodstock of the ’80s? In a way. The US Festival was Steve Wozniak’s “brainchild,” in quotes because the Woz didn’t quite know what he was doing when he decided he wanted to put on a bigger-than-Woodstock festival to “unite us in song.” But somehow he put together a crew that was able to avoid most of the issues that plagued the iconic ’60s rock fest. The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation is a documentary film that tells the story of the ’80s event, which was attended by some 400,000 people over three days. The doc also features a few artists performing complete songs, including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (“Refugee”), The B-52’s (“Strobe Light”), The Police (“Can’t Stand Losing You”), The Cars (“Bye Bye Love”), Santana and Fleetwood Mac.

Benefiting from the participation of a number of the people who helped put the festival on, like Wozniak, Bill Graham and associates, and numerous members of bands who played at US, this documentary is a complete look at everything and everyone that made it a one of a kind event. Performers like Stewart Copeland of The Police, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Mick Fleetwood and Eddie Money are included in recent interviews, and many more of the musicians and event coordinators are featured in contemporary interviews shot during the festival.

Besides the music, technology was a big part of the event, too. Remember, in 1982 big overhead DiamondVision screens were still new to rock shows. A satellite linkup to bring the show to Russia was also a new thing, though Bill Graham – who helped get the bands onto the bill and stage manage it – thought it was “bullshit,” that the video put up on that big screen was originating not from the USSR but some studio somewhere in California. (I guess he didn’t believe man had walked on the moon, either.) Some of what they did for US has been incorporated into today’s Bonnaroos and Coachellas.

Regarding the complete band performances, The Cars and Tom Petty do solid versions of the songs already mentioned in this review. But, it’s kind of a bummer that Fleetwood Mac’s take on their own great “The Chain” includes flubs by bassist John McVie (during the iconic bass riff, no less). And it should be noted that Stevie Nicks seems to be streaming Yoko Ono during some of her vocals. To be fair, Fleetwood Mac probably performed in the middle of the night and who knows what drugs the band were on.

If you’re looking for the concerts themselves, you’ll have to go elsewhere. But if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of how it got put together, The US Festival documentary is worth checking out. I’m not sure why it comes in a combo Blu-ray/DVD pack (maybe it’s cheaper to just produce one set instead of having two separate SKUs?), but that’s the way it comes and it appears to be reasonably priced, so give it a go. The handful of complete performances certainly adds a little frosting to the cake.

3/5 (MVD Visual ICONTVMUSIC 3, 2018)

 

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