Prog-Rock Doc Romantic Warriors Gets (What Else?) Obscure
Progressive rock has been a niche genre since it largely receded from public consciousness in the late 1970s. Like any niche, it has a small base of insanely dedicated fans, and Romantic Warriors, a documentary airing in the D.C. area several times over the next few days, is a paean to those devotees.
It's easy for prog fans—even casual ones with little exposure to the scene's surprisingly prolific underground—to enjoy Romantic Warriors. There are interviews with key figures in the current scene, including locals like Silver Spring's Steve Feigenbaum (owner of Cuneiform Records, which ironically prides itself on publishing outre music well outside prog's traditional genre confines) and Baltimore's Mike Potter (owner of Orion Sound Studios, which regularly hosts live performances by obscure prog and avant-rock bands). There's a fair amount of recent concert footage from a diverse range of obscure bands, as well as some excellent archival footage of British '70s stalwarts Gentle Giant. Those already into the music will eat it all up.
But Romantic Warriors lacks a cohesive narrative. Even for someone intimately familiar with the modern prog scene, the film feels like a pastiche of interviews and live footage rather than a truly well-crafted examination of the genre, its history, and its future. The documentary kicks off with a brief but surprisingly well-done timeline of prog as a genre; new fans and neophytes will find it quite useful, while old fans will doubtless delight in having more fodder for interminable debates about genre boundaries and whether or not such-and-such band "is really prog." But after that intro, the filmmakers jump to interviews and footage from the major U.S. prog festivals, and there is no obvious rhyme or reason to how the coverage is ordered.
Non-prog fans may also be confused by the documentary's unusually diverse set of performance footage. There are "traditional" symphonic prog bands such as Maryland's Deluge Grander, whose music evokes the grandiosity attempted by the classic '70s bands; there are jazz-rock fusion bands like Italy's DFA; there are bands that draw from a vast array of folk musics, like Mexico's Cabezas de Cera and Japan's Qui; there is the wonderfully understated solo instrumental music of Virginia's Rob Martino; there is even a bit of the uncategorizable avant-garde in Chicago's Cheer-Accident. The filmmakers' dedication to the truly underground part of the prog scene, and their decision to emphasize the current scene rather than focus on classic bands, is commendable. For existing fans, who understand why all these different bands fit into the same genre, it's wonderful to see a spotlight on the dark corners of the prog world. The uninitiated may just find it disjointed.
With all that in mind, Romantic Warriors is far from entirely incoherent. There are several themes that will be familiar to a fan of virtually any niche genre: prog as an outcast genre, prog as a labor of love on the part of both musicians and fans, prog as an international and vastly diverse scene, and, predictably if somewhat problematically, prog as a superior art form compared to more mainstream music. It's fascinating to hear various Important People weigh in on these issues, usually unprompted. We get some insight into what Feigenbaum considers strong sales figures (hint: the numbers are not huge), some interesting tidbits about how promoters at such festivals as NEARfest and ProgDay choose their lineups, and some quotable (for better or worse) gems like Gentle Giant's Gary Green saying, "We have to understand that [Top 40 music] is not music, should not be considered music, because that is fashion."
What we hear over and over again in these interviews is the sense that prog, ideally, is separated, but not completely isolated, from other forms of music, including the mainstream. Prog plays by different rules, but at the same time draws influences from everywhere it can, creating a rich and delightfully internationalized scene that—at its best—revels in the mixing of the old and the new. While I do wish the filmmakers had given a bit more attention to the bleeding edge of experimental music—they were present and filming at the first Avant Fairfax, for instance, yet that festival receives no coverage in film's the final cut—I respect that they needed to draw the line somewhere.
The end result isn't perfect, but Romantic Warriors, as a labor-of-love film about a genre that truly is a labor of love for everyone involved, is an illuminating peek at an eccentric underground scene. For anyone who has been involved in the scene to any extent in recent years, that's certainly good enough.
The film airs tonight on WHUT-TV at 10pm, and four more times between through Tuesday, May 24. Check the film website for the additional air times.