Cinema history is littered with punk documentaries that have managed to capture this elusive culture. On the great side are films like Another State of Mind, The Decline of Western Civilization, more recently American Hardcore and Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records. There are plenty of other documentary films that examine the punk rock aesthetic, but there is something about the way these films tackle the subject matter that make them lasting pieces of punk rock lore. They are the kinds of films you could give to somebody who knows nothing about punk music and simply say, "Watch this movie it will tell you everything you need to know."
Filmage: The Story of Descendents / ALL can definitely be added to that list.
The Descendents are a band that have long deserved to be covered the way they are here. In the interest of full disclosure, they have been one of my favorite bands since about the mid-1980s. I also had the good fortune to be on the Warped Tour with them in 1997 as they supported their Epitaph release "Everything Sucks." With the exception of one show, I watched them for 5 weeks straight, and to this day it is something that I can't believe I was lucky enough to get to do. The best part was getting to hang out with the guys who had made some of the most important music I had ever listened to.
I may be recalling the tour with a healthy bit of nostalgia, but I honestly can't recall a night where these guys weren't on. Even better was how they varied up their set every single night. Milo didn't have a a set of predetermined things he was going to say. It was one of those rare occasions in life when something great is happening to you and you're lucky enough to realize it. (Incidentally, I discussed this a little bit in my own documentary Orange County Hardcore Scenester. And yes, my documentary pales in comparison to Filmage: The Story of Descendents / ALL.
Formed in 1978, The Descendents have gone through a number of member changes with the only two originals being singer Milo Aukerman and drummer Bill Stevenson. Presently, for quite awhile, the line-up has also included Stephen Egerton on guitar and Karl Alvarez on bass. Now, I could go into a whole history of the band, but I am only going to touch on that here. Through a mix of interviews, archival footage, motion graphics, etc., this movie tells the story of not only The Descendents but the band they became, ALL. There isn't any point in my rehashing the movie or the history of the band, because anything I might put into words cannot compare to the experience of seeing Filmage.
As the movie played, I found myself being taken back to the mid-1980s when my brother first made me a mix tape that included the song "Sour Grapes." Sure, it was crazy to hear a singer say something like, "I wanted her cherry... I got sour grapes," but even more shocking was how much that idea resonated with my 14 year old self. It was almost as if I was being warned that attempting to have a relationship would be fulfilling, but it was also going to fill me with an angst that seemed to be captured in these songs.
From hearing "Ride the Wild" in the first 10 minutes of this documentary, I soon discovered that this really was no ordinary film made by fans. It was as if it had been crafted by a movement of people who loved a band, had questions about the band, and we were finally going to get answers to questions we had wondered about for so long. The Descendents have been around long enough to be discovered on vinyl, tapes, CDs and now downloads. Watching this film I suddenly felt connected to everybody who had spent hours listening to this band in their numerous formats.
I recalled what it felt like to listen to "Silly Girl" after being unceremoniously dumped by a girl. I was taken back to the crappy tape player in my car listening to the "Liveage" album over and over. Even better was getting to see all this old footage of the band. I was kicking myself that I didn't document The Descendents when I was on tour with them. I saw them 30+ nights in a row and I didn't shoot a single picture or record a single frame of video! I know, I know... to remember is to mourn.
However, as I recall it, these guys played with the same vitality that they showed in the raw video footage on display in Filmage. This movie is so well done, so tightly constructed, it never wavers in it's intensity. In many ways it is like a Descendents song. It is filled with emotion and aggression, but then it unloads a chorus that is as melodic as anything you might have heard on contemporary radio then and now.
You want to know how Bill Stevenson came up with the melody to "Clean Sheets"? Are you curious about how The Descendents changed when Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez came aboard? Did you ever wonder what happened to early players like Frank Navetta, Tony Lombardo, Ray Cooper or Doug Carrion? There are a million stories in this movie and Filmage answers them all. However, it isn't like filmmakers Matt Riggle, Deedle LaCour, Justin Wilson and James Rayburn have made a complete love letter here. There are some very introspective moments.
The most notable for me was realizing just how long these guys have been playing this music. It is almost as if Filmage, in a musical/film landscape that is predicated on blockbusters, is showing us people that are doing this creative endeavor not because they have to, not because they want to, but because it is them.
Alright, I've spent a great deal of this review fawning over The Descendents. I am now going to switch things up and discuss ALL.
They are a great band.
Like Larry Holmes when he retired Ali, there's a burden of following somebody whose that much of a trailblazer. So... anybody who came after Milo would invariably not be held in the same esteem. This is true.
ALL is not The Descendents.
However, they don't need to be and furthermore, ALL, with all of their singers has created some incredible songs. From "Just Perfect" to "She's My Ex" to "Carry You," this band has taken the best of what they do and managed to carry that forward whether it is Dave Smalley, Scott Reynolds or Chad Price on vocals. Some may disagree with this, but ultimately, the angst and personal expression of these songs transcend one specific singer.
This is why people love The Descendents.
The music they make and the things they choose to sing about are generally universal in nature. Milo was the first singer and he was highly unique for being a "punk" frontman. (This is a topic that is discussed heavily in the film). People related to him in a way that is not quantifiable. Which probably explains why ALL has a lot more leeway in who their singer is. You don't see The Descendents having a different frontman except when they switch instruments and take turns playing each other's part. (This happened once on the 1997 Warped tour as I recall).
At the same time there is nothing apologetic about Filmage. It doesn't have anybody in the band conceding that one group is better or even more popular than the other. Sure, some of the interview subjects feel the need to voice this opinion. Rather, what this film does is show how after The Descendents, ALL was simply the continuation of that idea that was first hatched through a fishing friendship in 1978.
As Filmage started to reach its conclusion, I recalled in my mind some of my own stories about this band when I was on that tour with them. I wasn't toruing with any specific group. I was promoting a film called Godmoney because it featured a few bands on the Warped Tour, one of which was The Descendents. I remember seeing them in a small room and their set having the feel of what I imagined their early shows must have been like. I recall trying to talk with Bill Stevenson about the song "Ride the Wild," and him regaling me with an answer that boiled down to how his music was basically "man vs. note." Lastly, I recall eating dinner and being joined in the line by Karl, then Stephen and then Milo. As we sat down to eat (I'd been talking with these guys for about 4 weeks or so), I remember thinking, "Holy shit, I'm eating with The Descendents!"
Everybody says you should never meet your favorite artists because they'll never live up to the art. I am sure this is true, however, in the case of The Descendents it couldn't be more wrong.
Filmage: The Story of Descendents / ALL is many things. At the end of its 90 minute run time, among the many cases it makes, is that this little band from Manhattan Beach, CA is just as influential as some other big ticket bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Social Distortion, etc. And they are.
We didn't need Filmage to tell us this but I am sure happy it does.