As part of my new monthly feature to explore the music of Fugazi, I tracked down a copy of the documentary, “Instrument” so that I could deepen my knowledge (and hopefully appreciation) of their music.
There are many ways to approach a music documentary and a variety of reasons why it might appeal to one person and not to another. ‘Being a fan’ should not be a factor, though. The best documentaries on any subject manage to educate and entertain their audience, regardless of the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. So, the fact that I’ve only been listening to Fugazi for the past week should have no bearing on my enjoyment of the film.
If this were a concert film, that wouldn’t be the case, but since “Instrument” is most definitely not meant as a live document of the Fugazi catalog, my experience and judgment of the movie is based on its success as a documentary of a touring post-hardcore band over the period of 10 years.
Whether intentionally or by pure coincidence, there are definite similarities between “Instrument” and my all-time favorite music documentary (and one of my all-time favorite movies, period), “Meeting People Is Easy,” the Radiohead documentary filmed by Grant Gee. Some of the similarities are likely just a natural result of splicing together impromptu footage from a range of periods. But many of the editing tricks and cuts seem directly lifted from the Grant Gee playbook. For that reason, it’s hard for me not to make comparisons between the two films.
I think “Instrument” could have served as a nice counterpoint to “Meeting People Is Easy,” as the bands represented in each film have a similar commitment to creative integrity, but they exist on opposite ends of the music label continuum (at least, at the times documented in the film). Fugazi refused to be a part of the major label system, and so they created their own label, Dischord, to release their music. Radiohead, on the other hand, was formerly signed to EMI Records, one of the largest record labels in the world.
Whereas “Meeting…” documents the band struggling with their major label responsibilities, like a never ending barrage of interviews and photoshoots, “Instrument” shows a band free of label politics, but also not supported by a label’s resources. There are a couple scenes where we get a hint that funding their constant touring is a strain, but the documentary never explores this facet of their lives. This obviously wasn’t the intended focus of the documentary, but it raises a point that I think is the central flaw of “Instrument.” There are no conflicts in this movie.
We are shown a decade in the life of a very active band (both recording and touring), yet not once is there ever a sense of struggle or turmoil. Even if we ignore the fact that this is a band that charges a minimum for their albums and entrance to their show, and thus must certainly be confronted with very real financial concerns (a subject I don’t think should be ignored, but I’ll relent), there is still the reality of a touring band and the kind of toil that must take on the group and the individuals. Yet, other than a number of snippets of the band members goofing around, we never get much insight into the personal (or professional) lives of Fugazi’s members.
Contrast this with the numerous scenes in “Meeting…” where we see the band members arguing, feeling overwhelmed or dealing with the day-to-day annoyances of touring around the country. If one was inclined, the documentary could be used as an attack on Radiohead because it certainly doesn’t show them in the greatest light. But that’s exactly what is so admirable about the film. It lets us in on the real people and it isn’t afraid to show the members at their lowest points. It humanizes them, the true gift of the documentary form.
“Instrument,” on the other hand, de-humanizes Fugazi in a way because it never once lets us in on anything real. There’s a scene when the band members are standing around their kitchen saying they aren’t going to continue talking until the camera is turned off. Now, I didn’t read anything nefarious in that scene (not every conversation should be filmed), but it does imply to me that there were probably very revealing, very real scenes of band interaction that were cut from the film or never even got recorded.
The filmmaker got a couple of noteworthy quotes from fans waiting in line at a show.
One girl is asked what the band means to her and she responds, “They don’t mean anything, they’re just music, something I like to listen to.”
Another fan says, “You don’t get to know them as much through interviews or whatnot, you got to take them at face value.”
Both of these quotes speak to Fugazi’s core message, I believe, which is that they don’t want to become a prepackaged product, but rather they want to have the opportunity to speak directly to their fans through music, without the distortion of labels or journalists.
It’s a noble goal, but it raises the question, “Why even produce this documentary, then?” If they saw this as a chance to let the fans in on who the real people behind Fugazi were, their ups and downs, then it’s definitely a failure (unless we are to believe that the band never fights, never has low periods, and never struggles with the realities of life). And if the film was meant to simply be a showcase for the music, to give it a chance to speak for itself, well then, there it also fails, because there are big portions of the documentary where the music is absent or only background.
There’s a telling scene where Ian MacKaye (I think) is bantering with the audience about how one of the band or crew members bought a carved monkey as a souvenir a few years back, and ever since they’ve had bad luck. He then goes on to say that they smashed the monkey, so now, presumably everything will get better. But the odd thing about this scene is that the film audience is never privy to any of this supposed ‘bad luck.’ We never see any of the struggles of this band, so a scene that could feel pivotal to the narrative is really just one more random bit of concert footage, neither revealing or vital in the film.
Which brings me to the underlying shortcoming of “Instrument”: There is no narrative. The chronology of the film is all over the place, which is fine if that’s meant to reveal something about the dynamics of being in a band, but it doesn’t. Instead, pretty much every scene stands alone and could be taken out of the film without subtracting anything.
There are some very entertaining scenes in the movie, both from concerts and from behind the scenes, all of which highlight what the film could have accomplished. One such scene is Ian interrupting a performance to stop some concertgoers who are getting too violent. It’s a nice bit of ‘character development’ for the band as sort of community value ambassadors, but it feels disconnected from anything else in the film (other than a callback near the end when a non-fan complains about not being able to dance at the shows).
The concert ends with scenes from a concert in D.C., which we are told is the same place they played their first show, ten years ago to the day. This would be a nice narrative end for the film, if at any point we were given a sense of growth or change for the band. As it is, the Fugazi we met at the beginning of the film seems no different than the band who closes it out. This sort of constancy might seem admirable if it didn’t feel so obviously the result of selective editing.
“Instrument” is an enjoyable enough couple hours of music performances and musings on the place of music in the world, but as a film it never connects with the audience on a basic, human level. “Instrument” is a movie you will almost certainly enjoy more if you are a devoted fan of Fugazi’s music, and that is the worst kind of backhanded compliment you can give to a music doc.
As I was watching this film and writing this review, it got me thinking about how much of oneself a person should put into their art. It’s obvious that the members of Fugazi felt that allowing room for interpretation of their music and its intent was its strength, and I can certainly agree with that viewpoint. When I write poetry, my intention is that it be as open to personal interpretation and relation as possible. There is no attempt on my part to convey my life and experiences as they really happen.
But, then I have this 10 Cities Project and a desire to write a book on this decade of my life, and that requires a whole different approach. No one wants to read a book about someone’s life if it doesn’t reveal the personal, the human behind the words. A poem or a song can be vague and ethereal, and that is the strength of those art forms, but like the music documentary, a reader expects a memoir or biography (no matter how loosely it fits the genre) to allow them access to the subject.
And that’s kind of terrifying. I’m not sure how many people would want the last decade of their life (or the last week) to be laid bare before an audience of family, friends and complete strangers. It’s why I can understand the reasons behind the relative lack of personal details in “Instrument,” but it’s also why I find “Meeting People Is Easy” to be so enthralling and affecting. It shows us humans being humans, and that is incredibly brave. And scary.