Film Review: Better Than Something (2011)

Full Title: Better Than Something Jay Reatard
Year: 2011
Director(s): Alex Hammond & Ian Markiewicz
Film Screening: Museum Of Fine Arts (MFA) – Remis Auditorium (Thursday, August 30, 2012)
Comments: Preliminary Happenings
So, movie starts at 8 we arrive at the Museum of Fine Arts at 7:58, an unbelievable feeling of relief washes over me because in my mind we have two minutes to spare- buy the ticket, take the ride. Batta bing, batta boom. Well, unfortunately I’ve never been to the Museum of Fine Arts! Yeah “art” art and KLYAM don’t really mix, we’re tards after all. Needless to say we spent the next ten minutes or so searching for the auditorium. If one were to take a shot of us from the sky we would have looked like mice on speed rushing through a maze, scurrying to find the Remis Auditorium. At one point, I felt like I was being played. Jay Reatard at the Museum of Fine Arts; I never thought the words Jay Reatard and museum would ever find themselves together in the same sentence. But, here we are. Thankfully, with the help of some kind  employees we found our way, only to discover four other mutants in attendance. WTF?! I was/am disappointed in you Boston music fans. Glen and I caught a nice seat in the second or third row – just like pretty much every other show we want to be as close as we can until we get too close for comfort.  Then again, comfort is the last thing on my mind when it comes to Jay Reatard.

Review: The film opens almost abruptly with footage of Jay playing in France, all pumped up and ready to go, but his mic won’t work. He is screaming his heart out, but there is no sound. Finally when the vocals come through Jay mutters something to the effect of “glad, we have a fucking professional.” I can’t think of a more perfect way to introduce the story of Jay Reatard. This brief live clip and the painfully awkward, but hilarious interview that accompanies it, in many ways sums up Jay’s entire persona. He was going to do his own thing with total commitment and if you were not on the same page as him then you were just a creep. I must say this opening scene is brilliant in its own little way and a very wise choice from directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz. If you didn’t know Jay coming into the film then you know from this moment on that you are not watching some bullshit Behind the Music story on a David Cassidy wannabe, instead this Tard is the real deal. Now, just to give a little bit of  background on this documentary, before Jay passed he put out his final LP Watch Me Fall on Matador Records and the label wanted to make a short video to promote the record. This little video transformed into an insightful portrait of the man from Memphis – far beyond anyone’s expectations.  Waiting For Something was a Tard creep such as myself’s wet dream! For once, fans were able to see Jay Reatard, not just as some tough guy rocker, but as an actual human being. Fast forward a few months and fans and friends all around the world are devastated to discover that one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest practitioners passed away at the age of 29.  Alex and Ian’s film Better Than Something builds off of their initial project and includes additional footage, interviews, and other appearances that put the overall story in a better perspective. I was obviously a tremendous fan of the first film, so going into this show knowing that there would be mostly new material, I didn’t know how this would factor into the overall quality of the documentary. In other words, I wasn’t sure how strong this new material would be: would it just be filler? Or would it develop the story of Jay even further? Well, my friends, it certainly was the latter.  In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how awesome some of this new material was. Not to say I thought it would be pointless or what have you, but damn it was pretty cool. I mean there is some priceless, invaluable archive footage here. Great, great live videos of Jay performing at house shows with The Reatards and The Lost Sounds. Not to mention numerous other performances including some at various Gonerfests over the years.  I also must note the sheer number of new scenes in this movie. For those that saw the last flick, please don’t think you pretty much already saw the movie before. There are new, fascinating interviews with Jay’s family (dad, mom, sisters) and through these interviews we get to see Jay through the eyes of the people that love him. I know that seems obvious, but honestly it is necessary because 90% of the time you either hear folks talk about Jay being a total miscreant or you hear people suck his dick off about how amazing he was and how many records he put out and so forth. His family doesn’t see him as this giant rock star, which he wasn’t anyway, but they simply see him as their son/brother- Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.

Through meeting his family and tracing Jay’s Memphis roots, the audience gets to see how Jay came from extreme poverty and grew into an accomplished musician responsible for a vast, intimidating discography that dates back to his teens.  With this in mind, every viewer knows Jay had to work his ass off to get to where he was at the time of his death, but I worry that some viewers might not understand just how much music he actually created with his previous bands and for how long they were active. For example, we see some stunning archival footage of Jay’s two prominent earlier bands, The Reatards and Lost Sounds on tour. And the way in which the filmmakers use this footage to tackle some of the main themes of Jay’s story such as his wild behavior and his aggression towards his peers is outstanding and appropriate. My only complaint is that viewers that don’t have a ton of knowledge about Jay and more specifically the underground “garage scene” that he was a part of, will they think “ohh, it’s cool to see these early videos of Jay before he took off and did his thing.” But, the truth is The Reatards and the Lost Sounds were well established bands for a while  (7-10 years) and they were the main musical acts consuming Jay’s life/career. I just hope people don’t get the wrong impression. In other words, these bands were not mere stepping stones to his solo career, they are entities unto themselves. I don’t think the filmmakers intended any harm or anything like that, but I just think some clarification might have helped. Maybe more of a historical, chronological approach, explaining the significance of each band? I don’t know, perhaps that would fuck up the flow of the film, which is sound and consistently captivating. One of my other qualms with the documentary is the lack of narrative. I do appreciate the fact that Alex and Ian truly let Jay and those close to Jay communicate directly to the audience instead of having some random yahoos tell the story. That is a special touch which I think distinguishes this documentary. But, at the same time, I kind of feel like had Alex and Ian placed themselves in the picture then maybe we would have a more unified story. They do an excellent job of articulating the various themes of Jay’s life/story; I guess I am just looking for some sort of narrative like the one we see Todd Phillips deliver in the G.G. Allin documentary Hated (1993). In that film, Todd is not really visible on screen per se, but he provides a voice over that frames the narrative in an incredible way. Then again, I can totally respect them for choosing not to include themselves in the film.

Lastly, I want to make it a point that I enjoy this film very much, so do not get discouraged from viewing it because of some of my minor gripes! I like to leave reviews on a positive note, so let me tell you one of the best things about Better Than Something is the way in which the filmmakers let the interviews linger, often revealing some oddly thoughtful and/or comical comments from their interviewees. It’s like they kept in the stuff that most directors would toss in the trash can , deeming it as outtakes or deleted scenes. Some of my favorite examples of this are parts of conversations that are omitted from the first documentary Waiting For Something i.e.  Eric Oblivian and Jay’s discussion of retired professional wrestlers such as Jake the Snake and Koko B. Ware. Firstly, I love this scene because I grew up watching WWF religiously. More importantly, this scene makes a great point about Jay. On the surface this appears to be merely humorous banter between two friends (and in a way it is), but within the context of the film, we realize that this is Jay’s way of laughing at all of the shit life is hurling at him. He points to the fate of Jake the Snake as a sixty year old man locked inside a character, wrestling his personal demons in front of a camera for the whole world to see. Being nearly half Jake’s age Jay declares that he cannot go down this road and just be another TV figure, another face on a magazine, another talented individual destroyed at an early age. Regardless of the outcome, I agree with Jay and I think we should see him in the same light, as a man above all of that “tragic rock star dies young” junk. Jay knew he was more than that. Better than something.

Cheers to Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz for bringing the story of Jay Reatard to the big screen! Your film is an astounding portrait of a man sadly most people never knew, hopefully your work will help Jay reach greater audiences than ever imagined, as I am confident it already has.

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