Sometimes you gotta take your independent cinema where you can get it — even if that means suffering earfuls of interview footage with musicians sporting heavy accents in a brew ’n’ view environment. Sometimes the material is just too good to miss. Such is certainly the case with the Sound Unseen Road Trip film festival, which rolls into Ferndale’s Magic Bag this weekend. Sponsored by that most enlightened corporate patron of independent culture, Rolling Rock beer, Sound Unseen boasts four rarely or never-before-seen feature documentaries and one narrative feature film.
This isn’t some tired trotting-out of the Alex Cox filmography (he of Straight to Hell and Sid & Nancy) in bad video-projection format. And it isn’t a parade of wonderful but hopelessly obscure subject matter. Nope — the Clash, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Ramones, CBGBs and Peter Tosh are as close to that thin line between truly interesting and fully mainstream as you’ll likely find represented over two nights in one place.
Casual music fans can dig in to the back story of mainstream pop fare. Cynical, been-there-seen-that types can line up for rare glimpses at more left-field works. And Detroit’s bottomless well of rock ’n’ rollers can quaff a few bottles of suds and have a good laugh at the hubris that almost always comes shining through in even the most fair-minded documentaries about musicians and the world in which they operate.
The fest opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. with director Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut, the lone narrative feature. It’s described as “The world’s first sci-fi western musical set in outer space featuring some of the most bizarre rock ’n’ roll scenes ever committed to film.” That’s a hell of a lot of hyperbole and gimmicky verbiage for one little film to live up to. Let’s hope it’s not one long “beer break” before the 10:30 showing of Don Letts’ Westway to the World. Westway is an insider’s peek at the breakneck rise and fall of the Clash. Containing after-the-fact interviews with the band members, the film is alternately loving, clear-eyed and raucous. It’s worth the price of admission just to see the toll rock life has taken on little drummer boy Topper Headon, who now resembles an albino raisin, chain-smoking and dressed up like a mannered English senior citizen. Letts was there from the Clash’s beginning to end and has, bar none, the most insightful footage of the other Fab Four.
Saturday kicks off in similar must-see fashion with Theodoros Bafaloukos’ near-stunning Rockers from 1978, a glance into the heart of Jamaica’s cutthroat reggae music scene. If you’re of the opinion that reggae’s something reserved for cruise ships, or if you’ve simply not been reminded lately just how powerful, spiritual and raw reggae can get, get to the Bag early for Rockers. The flick features stellar celluloid of Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Bunny Wailer, Jacob Miller and other (non-Bob Marley) denizens of Kingston and environs.
Rounding out the fest at 10:30 p.m. is the one-two punch of Graceful Swans of Never: the Smashing Pumpkins and Punking Out (no, not Pumpkin Out). Love ’em or hate ’em, the Smashing Pumpkins were ubiquitous for much of the ’90s and this doc should provide ample examples of why Billy Corgan thinks you should consider his self-deprecating and appallingly egomaniacal self the most important tortured artist of our generation. (Oh, I’m sure they’ve coaxed a few words out of band members James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlain and D’arcy, too.)
The circa-1978 short (25 minutes) Punking Out wraps up the festivities in sublime form, tracking the “punk rock mayhem at CBGBs” — and that means the Ramones, my friends. Gabba gabba hey!
Sound Unseen Film Festival happens May 24 and 25 at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; call 248-544-3030). Two shows each night. Early: doors at 7 p.m., films at 7:30. Late: doors at 10 p.m., films at 10:30.E-mail Chris Handyside at email@example.com