Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Whatever We Made It To Be, Or, My Review of The Other F Word (2011)

This isn't Ralph Bakshi!

What happens to punk rockers in middle age? While I could attempt an answer to that question firsthand, I will let this review of The Other F Word (2011) answer the question. First, a little backstory as to why I saw this film at all. While on a recent sojourn in Washington, D.C., I wandered into a theater without any familiarity with any of the films on the marquee, and there beheld a poster for the above-named movie. The poster showed a cartoon rendering of a spikey-haired punk strolling through a suburban street and holding the hand of a little kid. Black Flag, Adolescents, and Circle Jerks were in the soundtrack. But so was Pennywise and Blink 182, who are not my cup-o-tea. My first impression: This is an animated feature about a contemporary suburban punk who fathers a kid. Like Ralph Bakshi's American Pop, only with more Sex Pistols-like scenes and maybe a little shmaltz. Sounds like a fine gamble.

As the film began, I immediately realized my mistake and the poster's misleading graphics. This was no Bakshi-esque feature. It was a documentary about punk-rock males who are fathers. Get it? Fatherhood. It's an "f-word" to punks. It means being responsible, or worse, being authoritarian. The film's narrative, as it were, centers on Pennywise's Jim Lindberg, who struggles to maintain a relationship with his three daughters while simultaneously touring almost year-round. The guys in the band without families don't get what's the big deal, and even if they treat Lindberg like a brother, they put pressure on him to choose band over blood.

At first, I was disappointed. I wanted animation! But I decided to just enjoy the ride. I know so little about these 90s bands. And Lindberg is a affable guy from the first scene in which he packs hair-dye and toiletries for the road, making self-deprecating quips throughout. Granted, I had no desire to sit through Pennywise songs. A few of my middle-school students in the mid-90s were into Pennywise. They'd scrawl the name on their desks when I wasn't looking. So, the band always symbolized teenagers who were out to irritate me. I didn't even know they were considered "punk." That whole style of compressed-guitar, male-bonding, sing-along punk-pop like Pennywise, Blink 182, MxPx, even latter-day Bad Religion just does nothing for me. And did Everclear ever identify as a punk band? I had no idea until seeing The Other F Word.

The film became unfocused early on, digressing from its main theme (the "F" in the title). But that didn't bother me as it has some reviewers. Part of the film was a brief visual essay on the impact of early Southern California punk rock on Lindberg, Flea, Jack Grisham, Ron Reyes, and others. Another part--or perhaps another theme--described the changing nature of the music biz. Because everybody illegally downloads and shares music these days, the only way bands make any money is through touring and putting on an entertaining live show.

Though I've always scoffed at the commercialism of the Warped Tour, interview scenes with Brett Gurewitz became meditations on the necessity for events like that to keep these musicians fed and housed. It becomes even more necessary when these guys are responsible parents trying to distance themselves from the neglectful models of parenting they experienced as kids. (I couldn't help but get a lump in my throat watching Flea start to cry, which he does in this movie.) Gurewitz used the term "uncharted territory" to describe what punk rock was. It had no dogmas, or at least it made a show of having no dogmas. According to Gurewitz, there had never been punk rock before punk rock, so why should there be a rule that punk bands should always be short-lived and never sign on to major labels? An accurate sentiment, I think, even if self-serving when expressed by the owner of Epitaph Records and member of Bad Religion through to their major-label debut. "Punk purist" is, to me, an oxymoron. In considering the aesthetics and meaning of punk, I'll always admire D. Boon's terse credo: Punk is whatever we made it to be. And it still is whatever we make it to be.

That said, I wouldn't put this move on a must-see list, except for the scene of Ron Reyes taking his teenage kids record-shopping and showing them the vinyl Jealous Again, and it seemed that they'd never heard of it before. His daughter tells him she looked him up on Wikipedia. Priceless. Otherwise, the aesthetic chasm between my tastes and the sound of these neo-punk bands is just too wide. Beyond that, here's what the film glaringly ignored: the moms. Yes, it's about fatherhood, which is to say it's about what it means to be a rebellious young man, angry at his father, who later becomes a father and has to reflect on what he'll do differently, as well as on what he's afraid he'll do the same. It's about what it means to be a caring dad while immersed in the machismo of contemporary punk rock. But interviews with the moms would have filled the movie out, made it complete. As it is, it has too much of an aura of a movie for "the fans." And what about punk rock girls who became moms? Or even punk rock parents who aren't rich and famous? There are, fortunately, more punk rock documentaries to be made.

(Edited on 1/3/12 for accuracy and clarity and general betterment.)

Enjoy the Ron Reyes scene:

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