"Border Radio" (AMC Century 14) quite simply is one of the best movies ever made about the world of rock music. It catches you up in the tenuous, marginal lives of rock musicians even if you've never been interested in such lives or music before.
Working on an obviously minuscule budget, co-writers-directors Allison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lent (also the film's cinematographer) have pulled off the feat of allowing us to perceive the universal in the particular: The problems their people face are the problems of anyone who has ever tried to be creative.
To be sure, these young film makers--all UCLA cinema alumni--are too smart to ask that their wry and funny shaggy dog story of a movie be taken that seriously, but it's worth doing so because it's such a pleasure to watch and such a gratifying triumph of imagination over money.
The film is set in motion when Jeff Bailey (Chris D.), a local rock star who has apparently been ripped off by a club owner, steals a wad of $100 bills from him. With three thugs on his heels, he heads for the sanctuary of his trailer in Ensenada. While Jeff is trying to get his head together on a beautiful and serene beach, his wife Luanna (Luanna Anders) is holding down the fort, not knowing, but fairly sure of, his whereabouts.
Chris D., an acclaimed musician, is able to maintain sympathy for Jeff's anger and his uncertainty over his career, even though Jeff has left his wife in a lurch. In addition to fending off the press interested in his latest album, the forthright Luanna must also cope with his amorous roadie Chris (Chris Shearer) and his bass player Dean (John Doe, of the seminal band X) who admits that his music is the "only thing that sets me apart from other drunks."
The film makers, who involved their cast in improvising the dialogue, bring to "Border Radio" a resilient sense of humor, demonstrated when those thugs debate the aesthetic and sociological importance of rock when they're not bashing heads. The most fully developed character is Chris, and newcomer Shearer is endearing as a comically immature hanger-on with delusions of grandeur. There are funny asides from Iris Berry, a real-life groupie who provides a running commentary on the vicissitudes of the rock scene, and from Texacala Jones, playing the most spaced-out baby sitter you'll ever meet. Even Luanna, the one true adult on view, is amusing when she declares, with unconscious trendiness, that she's giving up the rock scene to write about her Indian ancestors.
"Border Radio's" gritty black-and-white shot-from-the-hip look expresses perfectly the uncertainty and insecurity of the lives of its people. (You can be a celebrity and still be poor.) The score, credited to ex-Blaster Dave Alvin (who has a cameo appearance), is as eclectic and irresistible as the film is itself. "Border Radio" (rated R for adult situations, blunt language) leaves you with the feeling that it has captured perfectly a certain level of the rock world in which people of talent and integrity struggle simply to exist and to be true to their music.
An IFM release. Producer Marcus De Leon. Writers-directors Allison Anders, Dean Lent, Kurt Voss. Camera Lent. Music Dave Alvin. With Chris D., Luanna Anders, Chris Shearer, John Doe, Devon Anders, Dave Alvin, Texacala Jones, Iris Berry.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).