by MALCOLM FRASER
and ALEX ROSE
This doc about Rhino Records, the L.A. record store turned novelty record label turned reissue imprint par excellence, is sure to tug at your heartstrings — if you’re the type of person who loves record stores, novelty records and reissues (as I am). For anyone else, it might just seem like a bunch of weird old people talking about the good ol’ days, but if you care at all about music outside of the mainstream, the film is a touching time capsule of a period of the music business that’s quickly fading into the past.
Rhino founders, former employees and associated artists reminisce about the store’s anarchic early days, when insulting customers was commonplace and rules were made up on the fly. The store got into releasing records with a one-off novelty 7” of L.A. street weirdo “Wild Man” Fischer, then developed a burgeoning trade in other novelty records (Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, anyone?), in close association with radio host Dr. Demento, who also shares his memories in the film.
Branching out into other material, the label eventually scored an unlikely number-one hit when local crooner Billy Vera’s ballad “At This Moment” was featured on ’80s sitcom Family Ties. Around this time, Rhino started an association with major labels, which led to them making their name with some amazing reissues and box sets, but which also resulted in an eventual buyout, with a predictable loss of original employees and watering-down of the original vision not long after.
The film uses a Rhino reunion in a two-week pop-up store as a framing device, which is interesting enough but doesn’t really go anywhere narratively. Also, its many characters are all introduced in a barrage early on, with long, complicated titles overwhelming the screen (do we really need to know all three newspapers that a certain writer wrote for?).
But this is a small complaint. Although I generally dislike nostalgia, the film had me pining for my Dr. Demento compilations and wishing I could hang out with the funny, eccentric old cranks who made up the Rhino roster. The store and label seem like a phenomenon unlikely to ever be repeated, lovingly captured in this snappily paced and informative doc. (MF) Friday, Sept. 21, Film Box (Quartiers Pop), 3450 St-Urbain, 5 p.m., $8. The film screens with a short on Brute Force, who’ll perform before the screening.
Evidently… John Cooper Clarke
Of all the oddball quasi-celebrities birthed during the initial punk era, there are few as perplexingly persistent as John Cooper Clarke. As the preeminent punk poet of the era, he has managed to keep doing his breakneck spoken-word performances for more than 30 years (although the requisite detour into heroin addiction and hotly-contested shacking up with Nico slowed him down some) despite never quite becoming a household name (or punchline, for that matter).
The BBC tends to know what they’re doing when it comes to music docs, and this one is no different. A venerable lineup of talking heads (many afflicted with dubious haircuts, as is customary in rock documentaries) show up to talk about the influence that Cooper Clarke has had on the poetry, alternative comedy and music scenes of the UK (the late Tony Wilson’s absence is felt, as nearly every interviewee quotes him!).
The star of the show, of course, is the man himself; looking like an unholy cross between Bob Dylan, Ian Dury and a scarecrow, he’s still remarkably loquacious despite a lifetime of abuse (to be fair, he looks like he’s come out on the losing end of a 10-year drinking contest with Shane MacGowan) and offers tremendous amount of insight to tie together the wealth of footage contained here.
Despite a decade-long struggle with addiction, Cooper Clarke’s story doesn’t have a particularly tragic arc: he’s come out of it with few enemies, legions of fans, fairly good health and his poems in the English high school curriculum. That makes Evidently… John Cooper Clarke somewhat less naturally compelling than the stories of tragic iconoclasts like Harry Nilsson or Roky Erickson; still, he’s a truly fascinating, one-of-a-kind weirdo and this film does the man justice. (AR) Friday, Sept. 21, Film Box, 7 p.m., $8
Uprising: Hip-Hop and the L.A. Riots
Less about music and more about the way that a seismic socio-cultural event changed the course of hip hop, Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA Riots is as fine a document of the L.A. riots as one could ever expect. Released under the VH1 Rock Docs series and narrated by a reliably laid-back Snoop Dogg, it manages to give an even-handed account of three days that still enrage people to this day.
It’s hard not to get enraged at the events here; while the riots have been exhaustively documented and discussed in the last 20 years, the images have lost little of their power. Many of the principals interviewed here (including Henry Watson, one of the men convicted of a brutal assault on a truck driver, and a who’s-who of West Coast rappers) can still barely contain their anger at the events. Director Mark Ford has access to a plethora of footage as well as remarkably candid interviews from subjects as disparate as Arsenio Hall and a Korean gun-store owner who was caught on film shooting at looters, making for a thorough review of the riots.
The film’s music angle is perhaps tossed to the side somewhat due to the wealth and intensity of topics found in the actual riots themselves, but Ford finds a credible through line of hip-hop as an inextricably linked mirror to a broader revolution. Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA Riots is certainly heavier on the latter part of its title, but it’s a slick, compelling documentary either way. (AR) Saturday, Sept. 22, Film Box, 6:30 p.m., $8
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
This doc takes place in another strange corner of the musical universe: the much maligned and misunderstood world of metal guitar. Jason Becker was a child guitar prodigy (the film includes some quite amazing grainy video footage of him, at 15, majestically shredding at a high-school talent show) who quickly rose through the ranks of metal’s top axemen, eventually landing a gig with David Lee Roth (in the late ’80s, when that meant something). A gee-whiz type who forsook the sex and drugs of his bandmates in favour of practicing guitar and chatting with his parents, Becker was an oddball in the metal world who got by on charm and true talent.
During the recording of his one album with Roth, Becker was diagnosed with ALS and given three to five years to live. As anyone who’s had the misfortune of witnessing ALS in action knows, the physical deterioration caused by the disease is quick and devastating, and Becker had to abandon his performing career.
But as the title indicates, Becker is still around today. With the doc’s structure being the way it is, to say more would technically constitute a spoiler, so I’ll reveal no more about the plot, except that Becker’s story is truly amazing and inspiring.
Unlike the Rhino doc, which jumps around in time in a manner befitting the addled attention spans of today, Not Dead Yet is quite straightforward, occasionally bordering on pedestrian, in its narrative structure. But the fundamental story is strong enough to carry the film despite whatever flaws it might have. It’s really worth seeing, and I would venture to say there’ll be a few teary eyes in the place. (MF) Sunday, Sept. 23, Film Box, 3 p.m., $8
See the whole Film Pop schedule here.