On the face of it, this could be just another documentary charting the history of a seminal punk rock band with talking heads, live footage and photos from the vaults and anecdotes from band members past and present. Fairly standard, stuff, right?
Well, no, actually. Few documentaries can cover a rollercoaster career spanning 30 years of revolving line-ups with enough humanity, humility, humour and heartache to draw in more than just the bands’ fans.
The Descendents - Bill Stevenson, Frank Navetta, Tony Lombardo and Milo Aukerman, whose nerdy, awkward looks were streets apart from the leather-clad cool of The Ramones - drew the blueprint for today’s pop punk. If it weren’t for them, there would be no Foo Fighters, no Blink 182 and no Green Day. Probably.
The film takes us on the journey from late-70s garage band to today’s punk rock stalwarts, exploring each band members’ caffeine-fuelled highs and lows in the Descendents then ALL – the band which followed frontman Milo’s (seemingly) final departure in the late-80s.
The story unfolds as fast as the pumping soundtrack and is full of fond memories, as well as hints of bitterness and regret as former members contemplate their decisions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing...
We’re also given a fans’ perspective in the forms of Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, Mark Hoppus from Blink 182, Keith Morris from Black Flag and other leading punk rock faces keen to share their affections for the bands that helped shaped their lives.
“I... worshipped him,” Grohl says of Stevenson. High praise indeed.
Right from the get-go, Filmage is funny. Really funny. There is plenty of laugh-out-loud banter from band members, though every now and again they throw the narrative as the comic timing trips over itself into the next talking head.
Quirky animated sequences also help bring to life odd moments of reflection, such as the time ALL slept in a house full of weirdos, including a psychotic woman’s pet rat which could only run in a clockwise circle. Quite.
But at the heart of Filmage is the powerhouse that is drummer and founder Bill Stevenson and his quest for All.
This self-created concept of ultimate achievement and always going for greatness, celebrated on Descendents’ album entitled All, actually takes on a darker tone to that of the All-o-Gistics - a song which lays down the commandments of All – “thou shalt not commit laundry” and “shalt not partake of decaf”.
Balancing out the food-and-farts light-heartedness, the filmmakers pull the rug from under our feet with a heavy dose of harsh reality in the second half of Filmage – touching on Stevenson’s troubled relationship with his father, which to me was the drive behind his undeterred quest for perfection and control – for All.
It also revealed Stevenson’s brush with death, twice, as he survived a foot-long blood clot in his lung and a tennis-ball-sized brain tumour. This truly amazing tale is given a bit of a punk rock kick when we see the doctor who helped save his life caught on camera shirtless in a moshpit at a Descendents show. Fact really is stranger than fiction.
And that is why Filmage is such a joy to watch. A story so warped, weird and wonderful should be lifted from the pages of a script, not recited and recounted by those who have lived it.
When does a teenage wannabe happen upon a bass guitar thrown out in the rubbish, or a singer be so torn between touring and becoming a biochemist? Or a musician just deciding to quit the band and set fire to all his gear, or a drummer getting back behind his kit just two years after miraculously surviving a near-death experience?
I’d put Filmage up there with Pearl Jam’s Twenty as far as inspiring and insightful music documentaries go.
As a huge Descendents and ALL fan, the film is an utter delight. It took me right back to being an awkward teenager, the raw, fast-paced songs I fell in love with still resonating, and now have me rummaging through my box of old vinyl.
“Thou shalt not commit adulthood…”