Better Than Something is a pleasant surprise of a rockumentary that partly owes its success to the tragic death of its subject, who in turn was obsessed with exactly the kind of irony that that story entails: creative success through destruction.
Jay Reatard, born Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., was a punk-nihilist in the best sense of the term — i.e., he was hellbent on being a rebel, and he had the musical talent to support his goal. From the stories we get in this movie, he was an extremely poor, extremely intelligent kid from Memphis who heard earlier punk music and, after some experimenting, realized it was the outlet that could perfectly fuse the demons raging inside him, the ones that said “make something” at the same time that they said “destroy something.” He made a lot between the ages of 14 and 30, the age he was when he destroyed himself.
To see him interviewed, or rather, extensively, exhaustively followed, in Better Than Something, you’d think that the destructive aims of his music worked overtime on his sensibilities, just to counteract his softer side, the side that said “create.” He certainly created raging punk music, but this movie’s long interview with him may shed retrospective light on the more touchy-feely reasons he had for raging so hard. He was capable of flipping off his audience by biting the head off a bird and smearing its blood on his face, but he could also speak eloquently about the psychological underpinnings of that and many other stunts.
What Better Than Something mainly contains — and was most likely originally meant to be — is a day in the life of Jay Reatard. His death unexpectedly turned it into an elegy.
The movie starts out unpromisingly, refusing to cut away from Reatard as he putters around his Memphis house, muttering ad nauseam about his hatred of idiotic fans, life on tour, and anything else that regularly pisses him off. The day goes on, however, and the filmmakers, Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, stay with him. At Reatard’s prompting, they head out for a drive to grab some food. He sits across from the camera at a Chinese restaurant and, later, in the back seat of an SUV, comfortably confiding in the filmmakers. He points out meaningful spots in his hometown and tells the anecdotes that surround them. Eventually, this very open style of documenting becomes endearing, and what seemed to be aimless footage starts to illuminate the consciously protean person that Reatard was. It becomes clear that the filmmakers intended to make a free-form day of it with Reatard, but that they never lost a sense of the greater picture.
That might have been it — a dirty little slice of a rocker’s life — had Reatard not overdosed (or something) in his bedroom shortly after the day he spent with the film crew. The knowledge of his coming death makes the footage they got almost brutally gripping at times. In fact, the film has a clear focus so long as it stays on Reatard. When the filmmakers cut away to talking-heads interviews of his ex-girlfriends and bandmates sincerely, but ineloquently, lamenting his death, Better Than Something more or less grinds to a halt. All of this filler material seems like a gesture toward a more traditionally structured documentary: it’s more obligatorily respectful than Reatard himself ever was. You get the feeling he would have better appreciated a documentary that followed the mold of his creative process, one that just banged out a version of Jay Reatard, presented it to the world, and said, “Take it or leave it.” Better Than Something comes close, though.