You just had to be there, man. Technically, to enjoy this locally produced documentary, you didn't have to be in the Detroit music scene in the mid-late '90s, but you'll get major bonus points if you remember when Nello's was the Eatery and Motor Lounge was the Falcon. Indeed, there's a self-congratulatory clubhouse feel to the film that, in a way, absolutely captures everything good and bad about the "scene" in one fell swoop. Brothers Nick and Anthony Brancaleone spent several years turning cameras on area musicians, and spent several more kicking around the festival circuit trying to get some attention for their work. That scruffy, underdog, upstart mentality is the movie's badge of honor, worn proudly by its principal subject, Tino of the Howling Diablos, who's depicted here as nothing short of a visionary in a black leather car coat, channeling the spirits of John Lee Hooker, Gene Krupa and Rob Tyner. After all the buildup, it's kind of a bummer then to hear that his brand of sweaty, white-boy blues was overblown and overrated, as it is now. Tino, the man they call the "Funky Daddy," is set up as the white knight in a struggle for success with his pal — and ultimate rival — young Bob "Kid Rock" Ritchie. Together with their bandmates, the two are shown on ascendant paths, developing their respective fusions of country, blues, hip hop and arena rock through extended jam sessions at the long-gone (and now canonized) blue-collar suburban dive the Bear's Den. There's an effort to build tension about which of these guys is going to break out nationally first — who'll land that big record contract — a conflict made silly by the abundant evidence that it was never much of a contest.
The drama's surely phony, but it's still fun to see a future world-beater hanging out with Uncle Kracker at a late-night Royal Oak diner, or to see a young Kid Rock on the street glad-handing the small crowd waiting to see him at Alvin's.
The Brancaleone's know where their bread is buttered — and who can blame them? — and they still manage to give brief screen time to a variety of noteworthy other acts such as the Trash Brats, Stun Gun and the sexed-up Queen Bee. There are also glimpses of freaked-out space-rock gems like Medusa Cyclone and the long-forgotten Isabella Starfudge, who failed to make much of a ripple, though some of their members have gone on to more interesting work. That's the real rub, an irritating lack of perspective that makes the whole affair shortsighted and provincial, and fails to capture the real depth and breadth of the fertile music talent that was popping up like weeds through the sidewalk.
At roughly the same time on any given night in the D, you could catch seminal work from dozens of acts like the Witches, His Name is Alive, the Dirtbombs, the Volebeats, Richie Hawtin, or see Jack White in his larval stage, honing his chops with the Go. It's not really fair to bash something for what it isn't instead of what it is, but A Detroit Thing seems to want to make a definitive statement about a place and time, and comes nowhere close. Instead we get more shots of Tino drawing plaintively on a smoke, as the narrator rationalizes that "Not everyone can be Elvis," which is as true as saying one man's genius is another man's jive.
Showing at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463). Q&A with director to follow screening.