Rock Docs

SIFF offers a wealth of music documentaries, with important local emphasis and national significance.

Documentaries rock at SIFF 2005. Beyond Gus Van Sant's quasi–Kurt Cobain biopic, Last Days, there are The Gits, about the band led by the snuffed punk heroine Mia Zapata; the Death Cab for Cutie tour flick Drive Well, Sleep Carefully; and Rock School (see review, p. 77). Two others that I've seen are eerily parallel: Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story and Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons. Each tells a tale by turns exhilarating and devastating, about a sensitive, talented young man whose folks drink like fish. The kid takes a plunge into the collective musical unconscious of his time and comes up drunk with inspiration for a new hybrid style that detonates a cultural tsunami. Despite having gifts most young musicians don't—money, a family basement to rehearse in with impunity, an adenoidal voice expressive of fathomless sorrow—the kid scores the chance of a lifetime, but instead chooses death (i.e., heroin). Later, his friends fulfill his promise, winning millions and changing the world. Malfunkshun was the aptly named band of Andrew Wood, who was grunge's lost genius, its Thomas Chatterton, and also a kind of Australopithecus Eddie Vedder. The Seattle scene really began in his parents' home on ritzy Bainbridge Island, "where the elite meet to greet and the Brie meets the sea," as one of his classmates sarcastically puts it in Scot Barbour's melancholy film. Wood ditched Malfunkshun to nab Seattle's first jaw-dropping national record contract with Mother Love Bone bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. He became the first grunge OD in 1990, just before MLB's victory tour. Ament, Gossard, Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, and MLB/Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, now reflective middle-aged rich men, muse fondly and thoughtfully on Wood's personal magnetism and mystifying demons. Wood also gets to testify—hiding behind a big frog doll and an inadequately self-protective carapace of off-center humor. Performance clips show how utterly he lacked the curious anti-fame puritanism that afflicted so many Seattle musicians. Malfunkshun nicely captures his punkish, puckish, Kiss-ified dandyism and the dreamy, wandering-in-the-melodic- wilderness quality of his imagination. At 24, Wood beat Gram Parsons (1946–1973) to the grave by two years, but in some ways Parsons was the bigger screwup—partly because Parsons' luck was far better, and worse, to begin with. The son of a Florida heiress and a war-hero dad who committed suicide, Parsons subsidized his drug habits and rock rebellion with a trust fund worth $292,000 a year in today's dollars. Gandulf Hennig's talking-head-filled Fallen Angel is a clumsier film than Barbour's, but it depicts a more important figure: a Dr. Moreau who grafted rock onto the rough beast of country and came up with a different animal, country rock, which rampageously ruled the 1970s. Parsons charmed his way into the Byrds, cut breakthrough albums with his discovery Emmylou Harris, and nudged drug buddy Keith Richards into greatness on Exile on Main Street. That he stopped just shy of greatness himself was pretty much Parsons' fault. According to a string of eloquent witnesses (Harris, Richards, Byrd Chris Willman, Eagle Bernie Leadon, Parsons' sisters and wife), he needlessly alienated people, played stoned and badly, and never would've finished the songs that made his posthumous name if Harris hadn't been such a pushy little girl. Playing Altamont and spurning Woodstock didn't help, either. (Not a mistake you can imagine Andrew Wood making.) He kept promising he'd go clean. Then came that last trip to Joshua Tree, the OD, and the notorious heist and torching of his dope-bloated corpse in the desert by his best stoned buddy (the subject of the rotten movie Grand Theft Parsons). And, like Pearl Jam rising from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, the Eagles soared to the stratosphere on a style Parsons practically invented. Neither Malfunkshun nor Fallen Angel solves the mystery of its heroes' falls (nor the deeper mystery that Richards still lives). These movies do better: They help show how and why they rose. Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story: Neptune, 6:30 p.m. Sat., June 4; and EMP/JBL Theater, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 9. Fallen Angels' SIFF screenings are past; look for it soon on DVD. See for other SIFF titles mentioned.

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