A Close Viewing of Bad Brains: A Band in DC
In this week's Washington City Paper, Mark Andersen explores the history and current state of the influential hardcore band Bad Brains, the subject of a film showing at Silverdocs this week. Here, he takes a closer look at the documentary.
More than almost any other unit to rise out of the American hardcore-punk underground of the 1970s and '80s, Bad Brains have a tale worth telling in a feature-length film. On one hand, Bad Brains are four black kids from Washington, D.C., conquering the white world of rock with extraordinary music, powerful radical messages, and riveting performances, becoming globally acclaimed and vastly influential. On the other, the band has blown numerous chances at mass popularity, splintered repeatedly, and acted out in ways obviously contrary to its gospel of peace, love and unity. Above all, Bad Brains has seen its fabulously talented but troubled lead singer, H.R., often overshadow their art with his misadventures.
To give each facet of the Bad Brains story its due without betraying the truth or losing balance requires skilled, sensitive, and courageous filmmaking. Fortunately, Bad Brains: A Band in DC meets that high standard. The documentary is, in turn, exhilarating, funny, explosive, and ultimately heartrending. Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan were inspired to make the film when they shot the group at New York punk mecca CBGB just before its closing in fall 2006. "We cut together a few of the Bad Brains songs from the CBGB’s shows, mostly as gift for the band, and were astonished when they came to us with the idea for the film," Stein says. "We couldn't believe that no one had done this already."
But while Bad Brains cooperated with the film, it is by no means an “authorized” telling of their tale. This works powerfully to the benefit of the art involved, if not necessarily everyone featured therein. “We knew from the beginning that this was not our film," says Tony Countey, Bad Brains' manager. "It was Mandy and Ben’s film.” If pained by some of the inclusions, Tony acknowledges the film as “honest,” an assessment echoed by guitarist Gary Miller.
The film illuminates Bad Brains' broad arc of influence, from D.C.'s globally influential hardcore scene to New York's hardcore community to the broader “alternative nation” that came to prominence in the early 1990s. Along with a mix of astounding live footage and artfully rendered animation, the film includes talking-head interviews with band insiders like Sid McCrae and Alvarez Tolson and punk luminaries such as Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, Anthony Keidis, and Adam Yauch.
In addition, by structuring the film around a 2007 Bad Brains tour to support their Yauch-produced album Build a Nation, the film also makes it clear that the band is striving to be more than a museum piece. The ongoing rash of punk reformations can be better attributed, I fear, to creative bankruptcy and the seductive pull of nostalgia than any spark of transformative, lasting vitality. Unlike most such bands, Bad Brains actually advanced artistically with their first post-reunion record, 1986’s groundbreaking I Against I. Since then, however, the band has sputtered as much as sparked, and in the film, bassist Darryl Jenifer admits “nowadays things are a bit sporadic.” Nonetheless, A Band In DC paints a portrait of an ensemble still striving to be a vital musical force three decades after its humble birth in family basements straddling Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County.
The film, however, also faces the unenviable task of trying to explain the enigmatic—and sometimes violent—actions of lead singer H.R. While one of rock's most magnetic shamans, H.R. (aka Paul Hudson, older brother of the band’s drummer Earl Hudson) has struggled not only to live his oft-expressed ideals, but to simply provide a solid presence at the center of the band. His poignant—if often impenetrable—psychodramas add spice to the movie, but also plainly serve to undermine the band’s artistry, as well as its commercial prospects.
While fairly immaculate in construction, pacing, and execution, A Band In DC is not perfect factually. In conversation with me, Tony expresses the band’s pique at the inclusion of a sequence about the infamous “Big Boys incident” on its 1982 tour. As much as I hate to admit it, this string of homophobic outbursts, capped off by theft and vandalism at Big Boys guitarist Tim Kerr's house in Austin, Texas—largely attributable, once again, to H.R.—left an indelible stain on the band’s reputation.
Having researched this period extensively for my book Dance of Days, I know that the film actually lets the band off the hook too easily. Darryl’s on-screen dismissal of this ugly series of slurs and actions as some innocently tossed-off “batty boy” taunts falsifies history. In addition, his odd justification that “no one criticizes Led Zeppelin” for similar misbehavior misses the point entirely—as if lecherous, drug-addled thuggery was the lofty standard to which this band of radical Rasta-Christians sought to aspire.
In the film, D.C. stalwart Ian MacKaye is left in the uncomfortable position of pointing out the obvious: “Homophobia is homophobia.” For a would-be revolutionary band, such was simply not acceptable, even in 1982. (To be fair, Darryl emphatically states in the film—as he has elsewhere—that the band has grown immensely as people since then, now disavows homophobia, and “has nothing but love for all people.”)
As it happened, this tour was a turning point for the band, not only because of the negative publicity that dogged them for years afterward, but for how it unraveled the tightly knit fabric of what Gary describes as a “band of brothers.” H.R.’s encounter with open homosexuality—not only accepted, but defended by fellow punks—left him deeply shaken in ways that verge on the irrational. H.R.’s subsequent unilateral decision that Bad Brains would exit the world of hardcore to become the all-reggae Zion Train—never agreed to by his bandmates, but seemingly announced to almost anyone else who would listen—provoked the first deep, lasting schism within the quartet.
At the same time, the extremes of H.R.’s response suggested that something deeper was coming undone. The 1982 tour foreshadowed a deterioration that would result in repeated violent episodes starting in the mid 1980s, capped by H.R.’s inexplicable, brutal assaults, in turn, on Tony, his brother Earl, and, finally, on a Kansas concertgoer in 1995. (This last outburst ended their short tenure on Madonna’s label, Maverick, and nearly destroyed the band, yet, inexplicably, is omitted from A Band In DC.)
Somehow, the band dodged this stake to its heart, and trundled onward, first as “Soul Brains”—because H.R. refused to have anything to do with something "bad"–and finally once again under its original name. As this chronicle suggests, however, this is not all for the best, for, in so doing, the band risked not only marring its legacy, but irrevocably damaging the bonds between the members. While Gary and Earl are now obviously disappointed by H.R., Darryl seems to hold genuine animus for his lead singer, and likely would gladly dispense with him, were that possible while preserving the band’s career.
Indeed, Darryl is captured in A Band In DC suggesting that the band re-engage onetime replacement frontman Israel Joseph I, cutting H.R. loose. By the film’s end, however, the band is cobbled back together once again. But if this allows Bad Brains to play shows of widely variant quality and slowly, painstakingly assemble new material, it does not bode well for their future.
H.R.’s erratic exits, returns, and re-exits are worthy of any soap opera. As Darryl ruefully admits near the film’s end, these “particulars” can provide generous amounts of entertainment—but only for someone who does not depend on H.R. to help create great art, much less accomplish the task of earning a livelihood. This simmering conflict sets the stage for Darryl's savage verbal assault on H.R. glimpsed at the outset of the film, and revisited near its end as the tale loops back round to its poignant final scenes.
If the film fails to fully document the ugly contradictions associated with H.R., it does not turn away from suggesting their likely meaning. While admitting that he is no doctor, Maverick's Guy Oseary uses the s-word while discussing H.R.: schizophrenia. Although the film surveys some of the most potent and influential rock of the 20th century, its soul is much more personal, capturing the deterioration of one of punk's great frontmen.
The film shows at 10:45 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 and at 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 23 at the AFI Silver Theatre as part of Silverdocs. $13.