Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All Dir. Matt Riggle/Deedle LaCour

[FilmBuff; 2013]

Styles: documentary, music, pop-punk, descendents, black flag
Others: We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen, The Decline of Western Civilization I&II

The Descendents’ discography was a fitting soundtrack to a past living situation in which cleanliness, reasonable volume, and paying rent were all blatantly disregarded. I was the only female in a shitshow that was primarily a boy’s club. My (unintentional) alarm clock was oftentimes “Good Good Things,” and I witnessed a stick-and-poke tattoo of the Milo avatar. The moldy basement was the arena of creative autonomy. Echoes of this life resonate in the documentary Filmage: The Story of The Descendents/ALL, directed by Matt Riggle and Deedle LaCour. Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson proclaims brashly that “if you’re playing to 50 people, you’re playing to 50 people, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” speaking against commercially mainstream standards as the barometer for artistic merit. While the film is nostalgic for the irreverent origins of pop-punk, there does exist here a conversation about artistic production and subcultural identity; if explored in greater depth, it would’ve made for a more compelling focus than the films orientation toward factual chronology.

The documentary begins with an anticipatory audience at Fun Fun Fest 2013. The lineup consists of Stevenson, Milo Aukerman, Karl Alvarez, and Stephen Egerton. Stevenson is a rare hybrid of drummer/frontman and the auteur of the Descendents/ALL dynasty, and vocalist Aukerman the executor and living logo. The story traces back three and a half decades ago, leaping back to a cartoonish Southern California landscape, idyllic and bleak at once. Stevenson and his counterparts rejected the vapidity of Top 40 culture, turning to the edge of garage-centered DIY operations from bands including The Last, credited as the primary inspiration of the Descendents’ foundations.

The Descendents concerned themselves with the innocuous angst that festers in suburban climates. In the tradition of 80s and 90s lowbrow “loser”-esqe humor (see: Beavis and Butthead), their raw declarations are of an unabashed male gaze, but so ridiculous that they are satirically accessible. Their lyrical “anti-intellectualism” was centered around parental antagonism (“Parents”), the opposite sex (“Clean Sheets,” “I’m The One”), and ubiquitous dependence on coffee and fast food (“I Like Coffee,” “Weinerschnitzel”). Aukerman was an anti-frontman, refusing to posture in any “rocker” fashion. This refusal of pop-culture as an alternative option widely resonated with youth (including the doctor who ultimately saved Stevenson’s life by removing a potentially fatal brain tumor).

The eponymous Milo Goes To College addressed Aukerman’s departure to pursue his scientific ambitions, and a hiatus ensued when Stevenson briefly joined Black Flag. Subsequent efforts to recapture the Descendents’ aura sans Aukerman resulted in a new incarnation: ALL. ALL maintained the previous band’s relevance and carried over their hardcore fanbase, but experienced multiple lineup changes and never achieved the notoriety and signature identity of the Descendents. The documentary loses its momentum during its relating of the story of ALL, testing the patience of viewers except those heavily invested in the minutiae and the cult of personality of Stevens/Descendents. The focus moves away from raw energy toward supplementary and encyclopedic knowledge.

Stevenson relates distressed accounts of his contentious relationship with his father, as well as his own triumph over sizeable and incapacitating blood clots and a brain tumor. Beyond this, the documentary is deficient in the interpersonal and interior lives of the players involved, failing to expose the real-life heartbreaks, familial tumult, and social anxiety from which the subject matter is derived. Patchy spaces of absence remain, such as the mysterious and abrupt departure of Frank Lombardo. Substance abuse (in this case, the lack thereof) is not once mentioned; this is an anomaly in most histories of late 20th century bands. We’re left wondering as to whether there is due to an underlying trauma, an enforced straightedge mentality, both, or neither.

Filmage is interspersed with commentary by Dave Grohl, Mark Hoppus and other figures of mid-90s and early 00s pop punk. Unfortunately, these perspectives represent only a segment of the Descendents fanbase, which reaches beyond the commercially successfully males of the Warped Tour contingent. Still, the humor and authenticity of the film is enhanced by a recurring, quintessentially sardonic 90s-style cartoon that illustrates the hijinks and anecdotes of the story. A remarkable assemblage of performance footage, video collage, and photographs are also masterfully cut and synced to the dialogue and soundtrack.

The band’s performance at Fun Fun Fun fest reflects a retained energy, possibly exceeding that of their youth. Neither at this present juncture nor at any point in the band’s history were the members fixated on financial gain aside from being able to comfortably sustain a family life; they’ve ideologically sidestepped any technologically capitalist slant. Filmage: The Story of The Descendents/ALL is tailored to those who are already well-versed, but there are takeaways for a broader audience — those with creative inclinations who are struggling to balance their pursuits with the hustle of reality, to maintain artistic integrity at the grassroots level in spite of traditional definitions of success.

Filmage: The Story of The Descendents/ALL screens in Los Angeles from September 26th to October 2nd.

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