Back in 2003 and 2004, the term freak-folk was tossed around in a hopeless attempt to categorize dozens of bands whose folk-based music no one could pin down to an existing genre. The ingredients of folk were an important part of the mix, but this movement of sorts was a genuine attempt to take folk music somewhere new. Looking back at the major album releases of 2004, one can see a surge, many would say peak, in the constructed sub-genre, with albums as disparate as the major breakthroughs from Animal Collective (Sung Tongs) and Joanna Newsom (The Milk-Eyed Mender) to those from equally unique acts like Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie, each releasing what is by far their best work in this reviewer’s humble opinion.
Kevin Barker’s The Family Jams does its small part by capturing this groundswell as it was happening, following the 2004 tour of Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Vetiver as they played in venues the size of studio apartments in front of crowds so small that you wonder if the musicians earned enough to pay for gas to the next gig. As aimless as the film may be, there is something inherently fascinating about seeing musicians up close and personal almost immediately before they hit the national stage and became widely embraced by the indie community. Unfortunately, Barker’s scattershot editing leaves the film shapeless, so it comes across as 80 minutes of home-movie footage patched together with little to offer to anyone who’s not a fan of the three main acts.
What makes it hard to embrace The Family Jams as a film, as opposed to an occasionally intriguing document, is that, aside from the concert footage (which is usually quite good), much of the remaining segments consist of little more than your run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes footage. The attempts to capture the moods and mindsets of the young musicians are half-assed, like leaving a camera running while various musicians and tour managers hang out, sing, drink, smoke, and drive. The footage of backstage ramblings is often interrupted by scenes of annoyingly amateurish stoner photography, most notably a painful five-minute segment of Devendra Banhart and two members of Vetiver passing around a wounded dragonfly and gazing upon it as if it were the Holy Grail itself. These misguided attempts to add artistic flair to an otherwise artless film only stress how little thought was put into the making of the film. It’s greatest virtue, oddly enough, is simply that Barker was at the right place at the right time.
Despite the obnoxious flourishes that often taint the film, however, it’s endearing enough not to outright dismiss. The DIY-aesthetic is perfectly suited for the atmosphere of communal cooperation and bonding, allowing for a fly-on-the-wall, you-were-there experience offering several invigorating highs that take the edge off the egregious, groan-inducing lows. As frustratingly inconsistent as The Family Jams can be, fans of freak folk will likely find just enough rare footage to make it worth their while, but everyone else would be wise to sit this one out.