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Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.
Don Letts, legendary London scene-maker, director and musician, describes the Bad Brains as “America’s Sex Pistols.” For those unaware of the Brains, this might be a readily accessible description. Those of us familiar with the band’s catalogue, as well as its place in punk rock, black and American music history, might say “bollocks” to Letts’ description. Personally, I wouldn’t let Sid Vicious (RIP) sniff Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer’s volume knobs.
The documentary begins with an unsurprising altercation between Jenifer and lead vocalist H.R. during a recent tour. H.R. is well known to be mercurial. In fan footage from the early ’80s, he is an energetic, engaging frontman who does backflips and swims into the crowd incessantly, all the while belting out lyrics about PMA (Positive Mental Attitude, the band’s mantra). For the last 25 years, H.R.’s antics have often manifested as the ire-inducing shenanigans of a crazed Christ-figure egomaniac or of a pouting 5-year-old. He stares and smiles at the crowd with a turban on his head as the band shreds. He wears a motorcycle helmet with a microphone inside it. He decides not to show up to perform at all.
For Ben Logan and Mandy Stein, the creators of this documentary, these antics and the years of on-again, off-again fighting between Jenifer and H.R. form the film’s emotional center, and it’s where they expend the most energy. Too bad the directorial duo couldn’t avoid the reality TV trap of constant, insistent turmoil and false tension, but there it is—they gave H.R. a stage to perform on, what else would you expect?
A Band in D.C. is at its best when it visits the past. Like all films about punk rock these days, this one includes gray-stubbled and balding stalwarts of the scene’s glory days. Harley Flanagan and John Joseph (Cro-Mags) share insightful and hilarious tales of yore with spectacular Brooklyn accents and diction. Two other heroes of the early Washington, D.C., scene show up as well: Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi) talk about how the band influenced their lives and sound. But it’s Dave Grohl’s (Nirvana/Foo-Fighters) genuine passion for the drumming of Earl Hudson that makes this less a runaway sycophant love train and instead an elegant illustration of how musicians communicate and learn from one another.
With little footage and few photos from the early days, the film does well to employ charming cartoon drawings to retell the tales of the past. But the best piece of nostalgia occurs when the Brains return to an old practice space on the fringes of D.C. The two-story house had caught fire and now lacks doors and windows. The band talks about being young and practicing there for hours in the basement, recording all the music they were churning out. A band friend and the home’s owner shows them a melted reel-to-reel recorder lying in the weeds outside, the machine’s body an ooze of gelatinous plastic barely recognizable but for two warped reels. The camera stays on the pile as the bandmates silently stare at it, floods of nostalgia and passing time undoubtedly seizing their thoughts.
Bad Brains: A Band in D.C. screens at the Crystal Theatre Mon., Feb. 18, at 7:15 PM.