The Story of Fishbone
Opens Nov. 11, Real Art Ways Cinema, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, realartways.org; Sunday, Nov 13 at 7 p.m. (one night only), Mystic Independent Theater, 107 Wilcox Road, Stonington, mysticindietheater.com; Tuesday, Nov. 15. 8 p.m., The Bijou Theatre, 275 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, thebijoutheatre.com
Look for details about post-screening Q&As with filmmakers at all three
The dangers of the rock documentary are similar to the dangers of rock writing, which someone once smartasticly described as "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." And it's true, some rock bands don't make for the most revealing subjects — years on the road, years in front of loud amps and years of drinking can all hamper people's ability to express themselves verbally and coherently. And the ravages of time might make it not so fun to watch. But the best music documentaries, with interpersonal sagas that play out over decades between band members, have all the drama, scope and emotional pull of a sprawling novel.
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone has a big story to tell. The racial tensions of southern California, suburban disaffection, the crack epidemic, the violence of the L.A. police, religious cults, explosive talent and creativity, a tight-knit group of friends who grew up together like brothers, drinking and drugs, the injustices of the record industry and the elusive dream of fame are all explored in this documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Meltzer. (The film is being screened in Stonington, Hartford and Bridgeport this week, and the filmmakers will be on hand for post-show Q&As.)
Fishbone — in case you never heard of them, and the fact that you may have never heard of them is part of the point — were a hugely influential black funk-punk band that emerged from L.A. in the mid-'80s. They played with everyone — Black Flag, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, and just about anyone else from that scene and era. And they influenced and blew away pretty much everyone else. Musicians who show up to praise the band include members of No Doubt, Primus, Living Colour, Branford Marsalis, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, and lots of others. Fishbone's mix of metal, funk, doo-wop harmonies, gospel fervor, ska, punk and soul really was the kind of whiplash eclecticism that frazzled people's ability to process. "They drew on sources that were too vast for the common mind," says Eugene Hutz of the band Gogol Bordello. Depending on the song, Fishbone could come off like a stitched-together composite of Prince, Cab Calloway, Funkadelic, Bad Brains, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown.
"I think they just caught L.A. off-guard," says rapper Ice T. "The gangbangers would be there looking at them like 'Who the fuck are these crazy motherfuckers?'"
For the band, the eclecticism made sense. But the madcap energy was informed by deep familiarity with violence and racial injustice. "You grow up black in America, where you're seeing people get shot in your neighborhood and the police not showing up, it makes you look at the world in a different way," says keyboardist and singer Chris Dowd. "You start to question your government, your purpose. We stylistically went so many different places because we wanted to unify everybody."
Everyday Sunshine has something in common with Anvil!: The Story Anvil and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, documentaries that explore a band that everyone thought should have made it, and the fragile interpersonal dynamics between members of a band that did make it, respectively.
Documentaries that show bands past their prime trying to hold onto their youthful glory or struggling to make one last shot at greatness and success are almost always unflattering to the subjects. Seeing dudes, usually in the neighborhood of 50 years old, jumping around half-naked, with (air-quotes) unorthodox hairstyles and outrageous stage get-ups, and playing music that was fueled by long-dissipated youthful energies can be an unfortunate sight. There's the car-wreck factor: you can't look away. But the guys in Fishbone fare much better than most. Angelo Moore, the hyperkinetic frontman and sax player, remains a fit and beautiful man. He has a free smile and warmth to his personality, on and off stage, that comes off as genuine and intense. Gwen Stefani says Moore is probably her "biggest style inspiration." Moore is seen sporting outsize zootsuit pieces, suspenders or bowties with no shirt, a glass cane, a miniature pork pie hat, Afro-mystic caftans, and one outfit that looks like an S&M deconstruction of a French Foreign Legion uniform. Like the music, it's a crazed mod-ska-punk-freak-pop mash-up.
And the other guys in the group, most notably bassist and fellow founding member Norwood Fisher, are all highly articulate, funny, intelligent and impressively self-aware. Even with such flamboyant characters, the bloated egos are kept in check. They grapple with finding focus in a free-form creative endeavor, reluctant to squelch each other's artistic impulses. We see the others work to exist in the shadow cast by Moore's outsize personality, onstage and off.
The film does a nice job showing the ways that the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots in L.A. and the resulting disillusionment put an end to the Utopian fervor the band had at its start. "It just killed a certain part of your hopefulness and your sense of justice," says Norwood. "It definitely changed us as people and it had a profound effect on our music and our art as well."
America changed. Pop culture changed. Things got darker and heavier after that. The band was less eager to make the dance-and-party anthems they excelled at.
One of the nuggets that the filmmakers wait a while to reveal involves the emotional and mental breakdown of guitarist Kendall Jones. In the early '90s, at about the time the band anticipated major national success (Spike Lee had directed a recent music video, they'd appeared on "Saturday Night Live"), and shortly after the death of the guitarist's mother, Jones began drinking heavily, reconnected with his religious father (a kind of cult leader) and, after a regimen of prayer and fasting — and what seems like a schizophrenic breakdown, complete with persecution fantasies and hallucinations — left the group. This began one of Fishbone's more notorious incidents.
Bassist Norwood, along with Jones's fiancee and brother, attempted by force to bring Jones to a psychiatric hospital. Jones pressed charges for assault and attempted kidnapping, and the band was briefly in the news, but not for its music. Norwood and the others were eventually found not guilty, but the departure of Jones was soon followed by that of other members of the group, including the hype-man and trumpeter Big Walt, the keyboardist and singer Dowd and Norwood's brother Fish.
Like many good music documentaries, Everyday Sunshine holds out hope that the band could still get the recognition it deserves, that the old gang might get back together to rekindle the magic (despite doubts from Moore, and despite those kidnappings, breakdowns and legal battles).
"Maybe through time we'll get some clarity on some of these issues," says Norwood. "But personally I don't give a fuck if there's clarity or not. Let's pick it up, let's run with it and make life as good as we can make it from here to the finish line, fuck it."
But it's not clear what kind of audience there would be today even for a Fishbone with a revived classic lineup. Punk funk, after all, was a cousin to rap rock, that most maligned of genres. And so, on the surface, Fishbone may have been pioneers in a realm that was doomed to be eclipsed by grunge and hip-hop and teen pop and all kinds of other more marketable niches. Everyday Sunshine does the admirable work of conveying that these sometimes outlandish performers are deeply talented, relentlessly driven and plainly human.
What Moore's mother says of the frontman could apply equally to the band as a whole:
"When you're too free, you get in trouble."
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