Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movie Review - Kill Your Idols (Now It's Free!!!)

For those with about an hour to kill, PitchforkTV has the no wave documentary "Kill Your Idols" up for viewing in its entirety until this Friday (the 24th). I admit up front that I'm biased, because there have been few musical movements that have hit me quite as personally as no wave. That said, it's an excellent little documentary about the creation and legacy of no wave.

It starts off as most generic music-movement documentaries, going through the (in this case rapid) rise and fall of no wave as a musical expression. It has some really good interviews with some of the "biggest" names from the scene (Arto Lindsay of DNA, Lydia Lunch, Jim Sclavunos, J.G. Thirwell, Glenn Branca) as well as Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Michael Gira of the Swans, both of whom were big fans of the no wave bands and who were clearly influenced by no wave on their early albums (indeed, Moore and Ranaldo both played in some of Branca's early guitar symphonies). The interviews alone are great, not for the insider's information they provide (though that can be fun, too), but for the wildly differing attitudes of people, from the soft-spoken, reflective Lindsay, to Sclavunos's humorous take on things, to Lunch's still-hot anger, to Thirwell's disdain.

After this first portion (roughly a half hour), though, the film really picks up on the originality, immediately juxtaposing recent New York bands the Liars, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, A.R.E. Weapons, Gogol Bordello, Flux Information Sciences, and Black Dice on top of the no wavers. With no narration or interviews guiding you, it's patently clear how much the latter owe to no wave bands. In the wake of the no wave sound, the newer bands' efforts to make a claim to be doing something "new" and "different" isn't necessarily that accurate. They all sincerely admit to being huge fans heavily influenced by at least some of the no wave movement, and everybody cites Sonic Youth as being a major influence (I forget now who, but one of the new bands' members says Sonic Youth really formed the bridge between No Wave and what the new bands are doing). You can really see how much bands like the YYYs and Black Dice admire no wave even while they apparently remain youthfully naive about how "new" their sound is (and in case you didn't get the point, Crary named one section of film "Amnesia").

From that point on in the film, Crary does a great job tracing how the two generations simultaneously respect and condemn the other. Many of the no wavers (especially Lunch and Thirwell) have thinly veiled criticisms for the "New York" movement of music, even while admitting to liking individual bits. Lunch particularly comes off as a bit of a rock curmudgeon, insisting that anybody who dares pick up a bass, guitar, and drums now simply is incapable of offering anything "new," and suggests trying a tuba if you really want to be new, even while what Gogol Bordello's combination of Eastern European music and the Stooges hasn't really been done before. And somewhat incongruously, everybody gets in their digs on the Strokes, who clearly do not have no wave as their influence and who are completely outside of the narrative arc until all the no wavers start digging in on them. It's not all mean (Lee Ranaldo has some insightful comments on how the Strokes' "explosion" is symbolic of a strange and not necessarily good new way of hyping music nobody's heard yet). At the same time, while singing their elders' praises, the younger generation clearly bristles at being labeled inauthentic in any way, and occasionally reveal the youthful mistrust and anger towards what they view as a bit of snobbery.

Crary does a pretty good job of staying out of the way of this. Certainly, there are flashes where he seems to be more sympathetic with the no wavers (who are, after all, the main focus of his film). I'm not sure Crary is "out to get" the new bands, but he doesn't jump to their defense, either. The juxtaposition of the claims of new-ness stacked on top of no wave acts live in the 1970s really points towards the naivete of the newer groups in their earnestness to do something "new," and in case you didn't get the point, he titles that chapter of the film "Amnesia." Later on, in discussing the "success" of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs after their first album, he points to them as "An American Success Story." While the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are fairly well known, I'm not sure calling them an American Success Story is terribly fair or accurate. Sure, they're more famous than the Theoretical Girls ever would be, but it's not like you can say their name or mention Karen O and almost all of America stops and says, "oh, what now?" Still, Crary doesn't really reveal any open antagonism to the new bands, either, leaving it mostly up to the viewer to sympathize with them or the no wavers (or both).

At any rate, it's a really well done documentary. If you're into pretty wild music, the really rare live footage of bands like DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in the 1970s is great, and although not nearly as rare in the Youtube era, live stuff from the Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others is great too, and the interviews are really interesting. Overall, it's a good film for anybody interested in New York music, the avant-garde, or just music documentaries. And hey, it's free - it doesn't get much more no wave than that.