We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

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There’s an intensely emotional scene near the end of the new documentary on the Minutemen, that influential and much-loved ’80s punk outfit from San Pedro, Calif.

Former member Mike Watt sits on his sofa discussing the trajectory of his old band, and when he comes to the early morning events of Dec. 23, 1985, his body tenses. He clutches his side, as if someone had just punched him and, not daring to look directly at the camera, expels a short breath and murmurs, “That’s the last time I saw him.”

“Him” is D. Boon, Watt’s best friend and bandmate, who died that terrible December morning in a car crash on an Arizona highway. It marked the end of the Minutemen, whose collective mojo of Watt (bass), Boon (guitar) and George Hurley (drums) had marshaled true DIY fashion for five incredibly prolific years.

Yet while the group’s 1980-85 saga did end in tragedy, the film wisely doesn’t linger on it. As producer Keith Schieron recently said, “We didn’t want this film to be about Boon’s death — we wanted it to be a celebration of their lives.” In that Schieron and director Tim Irwin have succeeded. Schieron described We Jam Econo as a “garage video” — he and Irwin shot it themselves on and off between April 2003 and February of this year, using a digital camera. Like the music the film documents, the DIY roughness provides much of the charm.

As main interviewee, Watt is eloquent but down-to-earth. He steers his van around the blue-collar streets of San Pedro, reminiscing and pointing out various landmarks. Watt provides the film’s narrative core, recalling how he and Boon met in San Pedro as teenagers and, later, how the punk clubs of Hollywood changed their lives. The film’s title was actually suggested to the filmmakers by Watt himself; it’s a reference to the band’s frugal “econo” approach to touring, recording and even living.

Drummer Hurley and numerous other subjects — among them, Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn, Ian MacKaye and Thurston Moore — provide additional historical context with their own recollections. But what’s most riveting is the archival concert footage — some pro-shot, some from amateur videos donated by fans — of this incredibly physical, visceral band. If you ever saw the Minutemen in person, the sight of Boon bouncing around club stages like some beefy, over-caffeinated Energizer bunny is guaranteed to bring a knowing smile to your face. Highlights include clips from the band’s first paying gig in November 1980 at Hollywood’s Starwood and, for a rarely seen side of the band, an acoustic performance filmed at a Los Angeles public TV station.

A two-DVD edition of We Jam Econo featuring extensive additional footage is due this fall. Meanwhile, though, the 90-minute theatrical release is essential viewing. We Jam Econo resurrects and hoists high a genuinely maverick spirit, with its depiction of the Minutemen’s humble beginnings, the band’s visionary music (a hybrid of punk, funk, jazz and beat poetry) and populist approach to rock-as-lifestyle, and the members’ shared sense of mission that inspired hundreds of other bands to take up the cause. Old fans and newcomers alike will feel proud to stand before it and salute.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Center (1227 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-9936).

Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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