Apr 4, 2013

Bad Brains: Band In DC (Documentary Review)

*Originally posted for G33KPRON

Bad Brains exploded onto the D.C. music scene in 1979, and quickly became one of the most influential punk and hardcore groups of all time, largely due to being one of the first all black punk bands. They also became one of the most abohored, getting banned from pretty well every club in town, hence the title of their seminal album, 'Banned in DC' and documentary, 'Band in DC' which screened in Toronto during Canadian Music Week. 'Band in DC' takes us through Bad Brains' almost 40 year journey which includes their 9 studio albums, dozens of singles, and live albums, proving that truth really is often stranger than fiction. Using contemporary concert footage and interviews, archival footage and comic book style animated segments the film tells a story so compelling that even casual fans could be drawn in. After all, there are still only a handful of bands who have been able to successfully fuse the full-frontal assault of punk with the freer incantations of reggae - and rastafarian rockers Bad Brains were first.

The film, directed by Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan delves deep into the intimate and inner workings of the legendary band, stretching back to the mid-1970's when four black teenagers met and started playing music in a scene largely made up of white kids. 'Band in DC' also includes interviews with notable musicians; The Beastie Boys, Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag) among others, who underscore the Bad Brains' importance to the birth of hardcore punk. The movie switches between the band's high energy past, and their turbulant 2007 tour which shows the band's struggle to move forward despite the challenges they experience as a result of lead singer, Paul "HR" Hudson's ongoing mental health issues.

It was hard not to watch without some sadness, comparing HR's infamous performances where the then wild front man would writhe and backflip off the stage to his current behaviour which is still erratic, but disturbing. We watch as HR dons bullet proof vests, motorcycle helmets and delusions, which the rest of the band write off as attempts of "sabotage" but actually seem more indicative of schizophrenia. The movie quickly glosses over this potential diagnosis though, so his behaviour just comes across as dismissive, or for lack of a better term, batshit-crazy. There was a large part of me that wished HR's mental health could have been shown with a little more tolerance and understanding, but I also get that the film was simply showing the honest reactions and frustrations from his bandmates who want to move forward, but can't seem to get the right musical chemistry without him.

Overall, 'Band in DC' was a real and honest look at the iconoclastic band, and shared many insightful stories that any music fan would get a kick out of. One of the film's most memorable scenes was created by comic book artist Rita Lux and animator Grant Nellessen, and shows an incarcerated HR sneaking out of his cell to record the song 'Sacred Love' for 1986's album, 'I Against I' through a payphone. The best part was that the pot smoking singer was able to get stoned beforehand by ripping out a resin coated page from his bible and smoking that before the impromptu recording session. The movie highlights most of the Bad Brains' history and even addresses the early band's homophobic stance, which still remains a topic of controversy despite bassist Darryl Jenifer insisting they had been young and over-zealous, and that they are now "loving and have nothing against any of God's creatures."


'Band in DC' will leave you feeling like there are many more stories to be told, and there are, especially when it comes to frontman HR and his own struggles. That all being said, the filmmakers set out to tell the story of a unique and influential band, and after watching there is no debate that there has never been anyone like the Bad Brains, and probably never will be again. You can find out more about the movie at www.badbrainsmovie.com and see them live on their 2013 tour which brings the Bad Brains to Toronto on June 13.