Check it out now, the funk soul brother

For once, a brother-themed post is not about my own brothers!

Instead, it’s about three films I went to see recently for the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Some friends and I get together every year to see a few films during MIFF and this always includes some of the music documentaries in the Backbeat program.

I didn’t realise ahead of time, but this year, all 3 music documentaries I selected turned out to feature brothers. It seemed a funny coincidence to me, so I thought I’d share these musical brotherly connections with you all.

Mistaken For Strangers – This was a documentary about US band The National, on their 2010 tour.  Matt Berninger, lead singer of the band, invited his younger brother Tom, to join them as a roadie for the tour, and Tom decides he will make a documentary about the band. I like this band, and the promise of an entertaining story about the relationship between two brothers added to the attraction.

Not surprisingly, this film was my favourite of the 3 documentaries.

As described by an interviewer at the start of the doco,The National is a “band of brothers” – there are 2 sets of brothers in the band, and Matt Berninger. The same journalist says to Matt, “what about you Matt? You’re the band member who doesn’t have a brother.” Matt replies “I do have a brother, but he’s more of a metalhead….he thinks indie rock is pretentious bullshit.”

Cue our introduction to Tom, possibly mid 30s and apparently still living with his parents. All I gleaned about his occupation is that he had made some really bad “slasher” films. As the metalhead  “no-hoper” brother, Tom was too good to be true – Jack Black couldn’t have played him any better. (See the link below to a review and trailer, and cut to 34 secs in, where Tom, driving his car, grins into the camera, and takes both hands off the wheel.) On tour, he proceeds to annoy everyone, forget his responsibilities, create mess, miss the tour bus, and is seen constantly sticking a camera in people’s faces and asking them what they are doing, or arranging to interview people and then waffling, with no plan of what to ask them. His older brother, and the other band members, appeared to be surprisingly patient with him, but the tour manager is less so, and finally (spoiler warning!) he is kicked off the tour. I couldn’t help but find that moment a bit sad. Tom seemed a directionless, disorganised person with very little insight into himself, but he was also genuine and enthusiastic, and therefore not unlikeable.

In the end, Tom finished the documentary off after the tour had ended, with the assistance of Matt and his wife. It is hard to know how much of the film was really spontaneous documentary and how much was scripted later, to fill in or create a storyline. For example, right after Tom is kicked off the tour, we see footage of him drowning his sorrows at a bar. If that footage was really filmed right at that moment, who was filming it and with what purpose in mind? But in the end that doesn’t matter. Tom was the real thing, and that was enough to make me believe that most of the scenes we saw were the real thing too. Add to all that, footage of live concerts, and this was an enjoyable film from start to finish.

You can read a great review of this film, and check out the entertaining trailer here.

The Sunnyboy – this film was a documentary about Jeremy Oxley, lead singer of an Australian band called The Sunnyboys, a post-punk band from Sydney, active between 1980-84. I knew nothing about this band before seeing the film. I don’t remember being aware of them in the early 80’s (although I do recognise the hit Alone With You). Apparently they were very big in Australia for a few years, but broke up at the height of their fame, due to Jeremy’s struggles with what was later recognised as mental illness (and later still, diagnosed as schizophrenia).

Jeremy’s brother Peter was also in the band back in the early 80s. Peter made efforts to help his brother around the time the band broke up and later on, but it is only in the past few years that Jeremy has started to take medication and get his life back on track again. Recently Peter, along with Jeremy’s new partner Mary, has been able to get Jeremy to take an interest in playing music again, and in performing in front of an audience. In the past few years, the Sunnyboys have reformed and played some gigs.

This was a lovely film because it was very matter of fact about Jeremy and his life, and also because of the hopeful turning point his life has recently reached. It seemed as though the director had been very open minded, and not approached the film with an agenda to portray Jeremy, or schizophrenia, in any pre-defined way.

ABC episode (takes about 5 minutes) on the documentary here.

Artifact  The final film was a documentary about Thirty Seconds To Mars, a band I knew nothing about. I chose this film because it was about the band’s fight with their record label EMI, who had sued the band for $30 million for trying to exit their contract. The “David and Goliath” aspect of a small band fighting a legal case against a giant like EMI sounded potentially pretty interesting.

Now, for those who, along with me, have been living under a rock, the band Thirty Seconds to Mars is led by Jared Leto. Leto is apparently famous as an “indie” actor, for films like Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream. (I don’t remember him in Fight Club and haven’t seen Requiem For a Dream.) His older brother, Shannon, is the drummer in the band. The relationship between the brothers was not a big feature of this film, but I noted with interest that Jared, the younger brother, was the frontman and singer/songwriter for the band, and, on film at least, leader in all creative decisions for the band, as well as in all talks with the lawyer and manager about the lawsuit. Older brother Shannon depicted his life prior to becoming a drummer, as filling time with “criminal” activity. Shannon comes across as bad-guy-made-good, a quiet guy who leaves the talking and decisions to his younger brother, and concentrates on practising his craft. As far as I could tell, he was a very skilful drummer.  Jared, on the other hand, came across as the penultimate metrosexual man: good looking, intelligent, articulate, able to play piano and guitar. The man can sing, write songs, drive a car while issuing directives on the phone to the band’s manager or lawyer about the lawsuit, and, when needed, muster up a very soulful stare over the lights of LA at sunrise, for the purposes of making his documentary that bit more heartfelt.

This film was my least favourite of the 3. This is not to say it’s not a good film, or that it’s not worth seeing, just that I personally connected more with the music and people in the other two films. It didn’t help that, as it turned out, I didn’t like this band’s music. But this film is worth seeing, whether you like the music or not.

Artifact was a really interesting insight into the music industry. Scenes of the band working on their next album in their loungeroom, with a lawsuit hanging over their heads, were interpersed with soundbites from interviews with music industry professionals.  These, and a graphic presentation, highlighted how bands who land contracts with major labels are likely to end up being totally screwed. The figures put forward, on how much the record company takes out of album sales, were outrageous. In summary I think they said that if a band sells 500 000 copies of an album, they can probably expect to end up with a debt of approximately $75 000. Because they are under contract, that debt is to be paid off with the next album. Only of course, if the next album sells the same amount, that means the debt will accrue to $150 000. And so on.

We also heard how availability to music and technology via the internet has disadvantaged bands. Record sales have plummeted in the past decade now that people can illegally download and burn music so easily. Add that to the fact that about 85% of sales will go to the record company. (see above). The reason Thirty Seconds to Mars had wanted out of their contract was because, despite platinum sales for their previous album, they had not seen a cent of royalties. This documentary really made me feel like buying some actual, physical albums, just to support bands. (I don’t do illegal downloads but I am definitely guilty of burning CDs).

Although at times I felt that parts of this documentary were contrived, who can blame Leto for using his skills – and profile – as an actor to create a vehicle to get this story heard as widely as possible. And also, perhaps, to help raise some funds.

The irony in the final scene of this film nearly made me a bit teary, believe it or not. (Warning: spoilers). After we’d witnessed the band’s struggle to create a new album with no finance from their record company, and under the stress of a lawsuit, Thirty Seconds to Mars had triumphed: EmI had negotiated a new contract, their album had been released by EMI, and they were touring the album. We see Leto, now sporting a mohawk, performing at a live concert. The audience is going off, Leto is going off, and the film cuts to an aerial shot. We can see probably about 2000 people on the floor, in a venue that holds many more. Jared calls out to the audience, “hands up who’s got our latest album?”. As one, 2000 hands go up, amidst screams of hysteria – YEEAAAAHHHHH!!! He calls out again: “Hands up if you stole it off the internet!”  More screams, YEEEEAAAAAHHH!!!! – and 2000 hands go up again.

(Idea for Thirty Seconds To Mars – set up a stand outside cinemas and sell your CDs there….I dare any fan to come out of the documentary and NOT buy one.)

(* Final note – if scheduling had allowed, I would also have gone to see The Punk Singer – a documentary about Kathryn Hanna, founder of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s – I couldn’t make it to the session times. Not sure if she had a brother.)

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  1. Strangely enough I once had a chat with a guy on a train in Melbourne about music and he said he used to be in the Sunnyboys! I’ll definitely need to catch that doco, and the others you saw!



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