Sunday, April 29, 2012

WEDDING BELL BLUES: a review of "The Five-Year Engagement"

A Judd Apatow Production
Screenplay Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

The night that I became engaged was emotionally monumental as well as beautifully simple.

My then girlfriend, after driving through a horrific blizzard from Wisconsin to the southern suburbs of Illinois, arrived to visit me for a couple of days at my parent’s house over winter’s break just before New Year’s Eve in 1990. We had been dating for nine months, had professed our love for each other and as far as I am concerned, kept surprising myself at how one could essentially find one’s love for another grow deeper, as if the act of falling in love was an unfinished process. Although I had not seen her for perhaps a week to a week and a half, when I saw her at the side door of my parent’s house ringing the doorbell, it felt as if I had not seen her for one year. Everything about her felt so fresh yet so familiar and within mere moments of her entering my parent’s house, our romance was rekindled. On New Year’s Eve, as we sat in the basement watching something or another and with a small, smuggled bottle of alcohol in tow, she asked me if I wanted to get married. I instantly said, “Yes!” One moment, we were boyfriend/girlfriend, the very next moment, we became engaged. It was something I had absolutely never thought would ever happen to me yet I had always hoped.

The process of our engagement lasted much longer than I had ever anticipated. While we never set a wedding date initially, had no firm plans of any sort, and even did not have any engagement rings as of yet, we just knew that we were promised to one another. After graduating from college, I remained in Madison, WI and moved in with her, much to the extreme chagrin of my parents. And on the very first night of our cohabitation, we had an epic fight. What it was about I honestly cannot remember but what I do remember is feeling terrified that an experience we had not shared at all, even after dating and being inseparable for slightly over one year, could occur so immediately. I worried that it was a dark sign for things to come.

By late summer, we had found our first address, an apartment we shared for five years during which we experienced the tremendous growing pains of learning how to be in a relationship and live as a couple. We had mastered falling in love but we had to figure out how to stay in love. We graduated from the first apartment into our second one, adopted our first cat, navigated through our professional lives, loved each other, fought with each other, hurt each other, and loved each other again all the while remaining engaged with no firm plans of how and when we would become married. Over the course of that period, we talked about our plans, began them and due to some serious soul searching on her part, plans would fizzle and fall through. 

After living together for seven years, I began to question what our relationship was all about and where it would progress, if at all. My desire to marry her had never faded but I had to begin questioning that if my desires and her desires remained the same. So, while driving across town sometime in the winter of 1997, she turned to me and asked, completely out of the blue, “So, how do you feel about getting married?” She said it with a soft smile and somehow, I knew that this time, after two failed previous attempts, would possibly be very different. It was and we were finally married in 1998, on the anniversary of our very first date in 1990.       

Seeing “The Five-Year Engagement,” the latest and very strong yet subtle and subversive new offering from the creative team of Producer Judd Apatow, Co-Writer/Actor Jason Segel and Co-Writer/Director Nicholas Stoller, the forces behind the terrific “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2009), stirred up a host of memories and emotions cemented in my romantic past and current marital status. It is a funny film, of course, but also a perceptively wise one and one that is also proudly unafraid to delve into darker romantic waters, especially during our current frothy state of so-called romantic comedies. 

Now, dear readers, I have spilled more than enough digital ink rallying against the current creative status of the 21st century romantic comedy film and I will try my best to not and rehash old wounds at length all over again. Yet, after this film, I feel compelled to offer some plea to anyone who will potentially listen to me. That when making a romantic comedy to please, please, please try to offer a work that does not insult the audience’s intelligence by flogging us all with wacky plots and prefabricated notions of love and romance. Time and again, film after film, Apatow and his creative cohorts have consistently understood how to make their romantic comedies work successfully by grounding the proceedings in a firm sense of reality thus ensuring the comedy is legitimately funny and the sex and romance feels honest. “The Five-Year Engagement” is refreshingly honest.

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt star as Tom Solomon and Violet Barnes, a San Francisco couple who become engaged during the lovely opening sequences of the film on the rooftop of the restaurant where Tom is employed as a sous chef. As the twosome first begin to plan their wedding, Violet is given the opportunity of her lifetime as she is asked to join the Psychology Department research team at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for a period of two years. Tom affably agrees to postpone their wedding plans, turn down a prized career move as the head chef of a new restaurant and move to Michigan with Violet. Yet, what seems to be a fine idea at first becomes one filled with more wedding postponements as Violet’s career continues to advance while Tom’s stalls and spins its wheels causing him to fall into a despair of unfulfilled dreams, deep hurts and doubts. Over the course of the following five years, Tom and Violet comedically and painfully navigate their lives and romance as they potentially make their way to the altar.  

Now, to many of you, “The Five-Year Engagement” may not sound to be like the type of romantic comedy candyfloss that is the norm and perhaps, some of that reality may not be for you. As I have stated many times, I completely understand that many of you would just like to go to the movies, shut off your brains and just be awash with that candyfloss fantasy, leaving all signs of real world issues at the theater door. Believe me, I like that just as much as you as what I would desire more than anything is to be entertained. Many of my favorite movies of all time happen to be ones where the real world is gleefully left behind. But, what I cannot stand is when the candyfloss and fantasy of films that approximate the relationships and behaviors of the real world arrives at the complete expense of reality. I loathe romantic comedies consumed with oh-so wacky plots filled with characters and situations that would never happen any where in any conceivable world. Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five-Year Engagement” is indeed a funny film but even then it is not in a mass appeal crowd pleasing way. The film descends down some very realistic dark roads, making the experience for me a much sadder affair, one that defiantly moves against the grain of mass appeal modern day romantic comedies. It is indeed a risky move, and I applaud Stoller, Segel and Apatow for confidently deciding to not sacrifice what’s true for the sake of candyfloss and fantasy.

I think Stoller has accomplished this feat in a very clever way. First, he woos the audience weaned on current romantic comedies with a lovely engagement sequence, which is intercut with Tom and Violet’s cute first meeting at a superhero costume party. And then, Tom and Violet experience many rocky romantic roads in a fashion as how I would imagine that it is for most couples when the dream of romance gives way to the reality of romance. Ultimately, I feel what Stoller has achieved is a romantic comedy more in the vein of something like Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977) or Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance” (1981). Something more melancholy, painful, aching (and brilliantly set to a collection of Van Morrison selections) and again, a film that is more honest, therefore making it a rarity. “The Five-Year Engagement,” is about two individuals struggling to determine and maintain their respective individuality while existing as two halves of a couple. It is a film about falling in love and mostly, staying in love.

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt make for a wonderful pair to not only root for but, most importantly, to understand. Segel, as with his performance in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is undeniably fearless by shedding any sense of male vanity to fully explore the fragility and crumbling of the male ego, an act that provides much of the film’s sharp humor especially as he becomes more despondent when his misery in Michigan and resentment towards Violet grows. As Violet, Blunt elicits tremendous charm and intelligence, making her professional ascent believable and realistically and simultaneously compelling and conflicting as she knows fully well how awful Tom feels and how much he sacrificed just remain with her. 

With the love story of Tom and Violet, Stoller performs a terrific job of depicting the precarious nature of romantic relationships to the point where some scenes are bound to cause some discomfort for those audience members who did indeed desire to leave reality waiting in the lobby. I loved how Stoller shows how tense late night bedroom talks can suddenly explode into epic fights detailing the entire existence of a relationship. How a phone call intended with such tenderness can instantly become filled with rancor. How one can love and at times, feel such hatred for one’s partner from moment to moment. Stoller and Segel’s screenplay is minutely in tune with a relationship’s life cycle and the process of give and take contained therein. Best of all, Segal and Blunt possess such great chemistry that they give us a couple that feels not only deeply in love but one that is richly lived in. They never feel as if they just met on the set moments before the cameras began rolling.

As with many of Judd Apatow’s own films and productions, the criticism has arrived that perhaps “The Five-Year Engagement,” which runs a hair over two hours, is a tad too long. For that criticism, I whole-heartedly disagree as Stoller and Segel have done their best to create a full world for their characters to inhabit. There is terrific supporting work from Chris Pratt as Tom’s vulgar culinary best friend Alex as well as great work from the adorable Alison Brie as Violet’s sister Suzie. I really enjoyed the amount of time spent in the University Psychology department with Violet’s goofy research team (Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart), who are all under the leadership of Professor Winton Childs (a very effective Rhys Ifans). All of those scenes allowed Stoller to include some good, pointed satire about the world of academia and the Midwestern university community. Of course, not absolutely everything works in the film, but that’s OK. With those characters and others, the world of “The Five-Year Engagement” felt complete, lived in and with all of the messy, undisciplined material and people that surround us within our real lives. Again, we have a film that despite some wild moments involving deer hunting, the dangers and consequences of Midwestern frostbite and some truly scary and depression motivated facial hair growth, all feels very true instead of feeling too streamlined and ultimately plastic.

I have been with my wife for a total of 22 years and we have been married for 14. It amazes me when I actually take the time and think about the years we have spent together and wrap my head around the fact that we have spent half of our lives together. The hard work involved with tending to and attempting to maintain a relationship has not been lost upon either of us, yet all has not been sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. In the ebb and flow of marriage, there have been, and still remain, periods where things tend to ebb much more than flow and yet, we are still here. I loved that “The Five-Year Engagement” is precisely a love story that taps into those precise emotions and that makes this a story that deserves telling. One where love is not so easily tamed and handled, no matter how much one loves the other. One where the individual struggles of creating one’s place in the professional world impacts one’s sense of self and the relationships they are connected with. One where a heartfelt compromise can unfortunately produce wrenching personal and professional consequences and feelings of failure. It is a film where the love story is indeed more hard fought than we typically see and I felt made “The Five-Year Engagement” a deeper, richer experience than it had to be. I loved the attention and effort given to this story and characters very much and once again, I cannot express enough how much I treasure the work of Judd Apatow and his band of merry collaborators because when they are working at their best, they realize that just being funny is not always enough. There can always be more! As a viewer, I appreciate the willingness they have to probe and mine for more, making the experience one that can fully resonate and one rich enough to return to.

While "The Five-Year Engagement" is not meant for everyone, I do wish that mass audiences will give it enough of a chance where that any potential success could just maybe force those Hollywood powers that be to eschew those wacky plots and just find the humor and heartbreak of relationships that we can all relate to.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Written by Cynthia Lowen and Lee Hirsch
Directed by Lee Hirsch
**** (four stars)

“Tell me how to fix this.”

Kim Lockwood, a Middle School Assistant Principal in Sioux City, IA, quietly speaks those words to herself as she views one distressed looking student skulking down a hallway during one of the early scenes in Director Lee Hirsch’s bold documentary “Bully.” Truth be told, in my life as a preschool teacher, I have uttered those same words to myself more times than I would have ever thought or wished. And relatively speaking, I have it easy.

Yes, dear readers, even in those very early childhood years, the topic of bullying and therefore, advocacy for those who are most powerless is a constant one. What makes navigating the cruelty children inflict upon each other easier for me to deal with than perhaps other teachers of older students is precisely the fact that I work with two other Co-Teachers. The three of us are able to cast a wide net throughout the classroom and in moments of interpersonal conflicts between children, one of us can deal with the problem and defend the victims of the situation while the other teachers are able to be involved in other classroom areas. All of that being said, it still flabbergasts me to be a first hand witness to those moments when children as young as three and four years old have devised ways to emotionally hurt their peers. Granted, at that age, they are not that aware of the hurt they are causing towards others and most of the time, their behaviors are reactionary more than premeditated. But, somehow, especially for the girls I’ve taught over the years, they somehow just know that a well timed, “You can’t come to my party!!” can devastate a classmate to the point of nearly inconsolable tears. And that is exactly where my colleagues and myself swoop in. Not only are we trying to give children the tools to solve their own problems, we are emphatically defending the child who was wronged, who was hurt, who was excluded, who was blamed and ensuring that their status in our classroom community and their emerging sense of self esteem remains sturdy. Yet, I often wonder just where does this sense of holding power over another, to the point of enacting malice upon your peers, originate from? If I had a magic wand, I would figure out a way to ensure that all children, everywhere, would never feel that sting of cruelty. Of course, I do not possess such an object so, yes...please do tell me how to fix this.

At its core, I think that is one of the major sentiments Hirsch wanted to convey with “Bully,” a character driven documentary piece detailing the lives of several victimized middle school/high school students, two of whom (one aged 17, and the other aged 11) have terribly committed suicide. The film is often harrowing, consistently despairing, and even justifiably blistering in its outrage. But mostly, I found the film to be profoundly sobering as it forces all who watch to just take some time to think about not only how we treat each other but how we can somehow come to the aid and support of others, especially when that person feels as if they are existing at their most alone. “Bully” is indeed one of 2012’s most powerful films but beyond that, I feel it a film that should be required and essential viewing for children, teens, families, educators and school systems. Lee Hirsch has created a film of impassioned, heartfelt empathy and it should not be missed.

“Bully” opens tragically with the story of Tyler Long, a 17 year old who, after years of being bullied and feeling increasingly isolated, hung himself in his parent’s closet. Beginning with a prologue of such intense internal pain and damage to a boy’s life, and the equally damaging effects on the surviving members of his family, went a powerfully long way to giving the film and subject matter the level of serious attention it needs. For those who view bullying as simply being just a part of life because “kids will just be kids” and “boys will be boys,” Lee Hirsch has a decidedly provocative and different take which will hopefully force those people to re-evaluate their worldview.

For the remainder of the film, we are introduced to the aching stories of several children, from Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Iowa, as “Bully” shows how no one is immune to bullying, how even the most seemingly well adjusted children can become targets and how the consistent abuse can take a devastating psychological toll. Aside from the stories of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley (the 11 year old who also took his life), we are presented with Ja’Meya, a 14- year-old honor student and star athlete who was relentlessly harassed to the point where she took her Mother’s gun onto a school bus. For the course of the film, we wait, along with her Mother, to hear how the legal system will decide Ja’Meya’s fate.

In a section that truly broke my heart, Hirsch also gives us the story of 14-year-old Kelby, as we can see how an entire community turned its back upon this girl and her family simply because she is a lesbian. While Kelby does possess a strong will, a small, supportive circle of friends and compassionate parents, the level of cruelty she has received from the classroom to throughout her entire town is astonishing and unforgivable. I could not help but to imagine what may have become of her if she did not even have those friends and parents on her side.

The film spends the most time with Alex Libby (pictured above), a 12-year-old who was born prematurely, is physically weaker and more awkward than his peers and carries an unusual facial appearance which has sadly earned him the targeted badge of “Fish Face.” Throughout “Bully,” Alex is often seen alone, is apparently friendless, is mercilessly hazed on the school bus daily and is never defended by anyone. Alex laughs off most of the abuse in the moment but why? Or better yet, how? Perhaps by not having strong friendships, he is unaware of what positive friendships and interpersonal relationship can and should be. Perhaps, this hazing is all he knows and despite how miserable it makes him feel, it is all he has.

A particularly well observed and captured sequence occurs in the kitchen of his home with his sassy younger sister and his Father. Alex’s sister perceptively announces that she will inevitably be bullied herself just because Alex is her brother and everyone thinks of him as “creepy.” Even more telling about that moment to me was the reaction from their Father. It amazed me that their Father was literally right in the middle of them and somehow wasted this opportunity to learn more about Alex’s life and advocate for his son rather than what he did do: make Alex solely responsible for the treatment he receives and any potential outcomes that may occur.

Furthermore, once Hirsch expands his canvas to the teachers, administrators and school system, their collective ineffectiveness and inability to advocate strongly is shocking. We are shown a world where school administrators adhere more to the politics of the school system and local media (and in the case of this film, saving face in front of the filmmaker’s watchful camera eyes) rather than advocating for the powerless.

An early sequence shows Kim Lockwood’s attempts to settle one dispute between two students by forcing the two boys to shake hands. As I am a teacher who refuses to force children to apologize as I feel it is nothing more than a social “Get Out Of Jail Free Card,” this particular scene actually set my blood boiling. This is because we see Lockwood letting the bully off the hook because he simply offered a conciliatory, yet obviously dishonest handshake. This moment was followed by Lockwood beginning to accuse the victim for the bad behavior, even going so far as to suggest that his unwillingness and reluctance to accept the bully’s handshake made his behavior as negative as the bully’s persistent abuse, which has continued even after talks from teachers and the local authorities.

Another agonizing sequence with Lockwood occurs when Alex’s parents meet with her to try and get him moved from one school bus route to another. Lockwood pacifies the parents with innocuous statements of how “kids will be kids” and how she has ridden that particular bus route herself and the children were just “angels.”

One great moment arrives late in the film between Alex and another Assistant Principal as he confronts her about how she indeed did nothing to help him after a child sat on his head during another hellish school bus ride. The Assistant Principal protests and even claims that she did deal with that student and the problem overall and therefore, hasn’t he not had his head sat upon since? While Alex concedes to the truth to that statement, he quietly informs her that sitting upon his head is not the only form of physical abuse he has endured from this tormentor and ultimately, it has never ceased.

And then, there’s the unthinkable moment set during an outreach town hall meeting, organized by Tyler Long’s parents just five weeks after their son’s suicide. As families and teenagers all courageously spoke publicly about the levels of bullying that has permeated their entire community, not even one of the 20 invited members of the town school board appeared to hear any of it.

While Hirsch understandably and wisely condemns the school officials and administrations for their inactivity he also wisely does not demonize them. Within all logistics, and in defense of educators, teachers are not able to be with children during every single moment of the day. In regards to my own classroom, as I previously stated, there are three of us present to preside over 18 charges. The entire preschool at which I am employed may carry a student body of nearly 200 children but our campus size is small enough that we know essentially every child there and they know us as well. But, I already often wonder what will happen as these children leave my classroom and school, head to larger sized kindergarten classes with only one teacher and even beyond, into those years where childhood cruelty becomes premeditated and for some, relentless in its persistence. Teachers do not ride the buses, are not present in the bathrooms, locker rooms or any other student hideaways and are they are certainly not involved during any off campus incidents, especially those that now occur through any social media formats. Teasing and bullying is an unfortunate part of life but there is no conceivable reason to me as to why schools have to become unsafe places.

What Hirsch accomplishes by this point of the film is to display the cycle and ultimately, a culture of teenage fear and abuse, where children feel increasingly isolated and uncommunicative. Hirsch is wise enough to understand that within the culture of teenagers, the fear exists that if one stands up for another, then that action may potentially make the protector a new target for abuse. That said, Hirsch argues passionately that the relationships between students and teachers are completely symbiotic. If Alex, for instance, has tried in the past to obtain help and did not receive sufficient support, then why should he or others like him try again, forcing them all to suffer in silence? For children like Tyler and Ty, the pressure became too much to deal with. Even for Kelby who has, at the very least, been fortunate enough to create her own support circle, she has been let down tremendously and shamefully by the very community that should be protecting her. Hirsch argues, that while kids do need to be able to communicate their needs, we, as adults, have got to take their needs seriously enough and fight for them. Only then will our world community begin to heal and ultimately grow.

The climax of the film centers around events pertaining to Stand For The Silent, an organization created and organized by Ty Smalley’s parents as a means to engender a culture of kindness and tolerance. The main message is that bullying should never be tolerated and through individual acts of kindness, we may all be able to save someone’s life and create a society in which everyone feels valued, loved and protected. Surprisingly, I have seen some criticism of this movement and film in general as being more than a little naïve with this philosophy. But, I am here to tell you that while “Bully” certainly does not provide any easy answers to this seismic problem, it does offer some deceptively simple concepts to truly ponder. If you can see it, then you are in it and it is up to all of us to stand up for each other and do something.

What can we attain from Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” is 100% precisely the topic I return to over and again on Savage Cinema and that is the topic of humanity. To some, “Bully” may seem to be naïve but for me and my sensibilities, I was pleased that Hirsch did not attempt to provide any band-aid answers. Yet, what he does do with this film is to try and create a world of empathy and solidarity, which will then be utilized to hopefully create a more tolerant world in the long run. For that person who looks to be all alone, give them a smile, a handshake, a greeting, something that makes the other person feel that they are indeed individuals of value. That they are people worth knowing. As Alex’s Mother explains tearfully in one scene, she feels that if kids ever gave Alex a chance they would see how deeply loyal of a friend he would actually turn out to be.

Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” is completely in tune with this precarious and tumultuous time of life so intuitively and beautifully that he has created a film that encourages discussion, deep thought and most importantly, action for all of us as bullying does not solely exist in the school yard and school buses. Bullies exist well into deep adulthood through inhumane supervisors and yes, we have seen more than our share of political figures who are nothing more than bullies out to settle old, unfinished scores on a mass level. Yes, there will always be bullies. But more importantly, there should always be advocates and protectors to outnumber the bullies. Everyone, everywhere, especially our children should feel safe, and even more than that, everyone should know unequivocally that their lives have value, importance and purpose.

Dear readers, I am certain that many of you have been bullied, are being bullied or at least know someone who has endured this trial of life. Growing up, I was teased, bullied and hazed throughout my childhood for my race, weight, appearance, speech, worldview, likes, dislikes, and whatever else set me apart from others. While I was fortunate enough to have friends, I deduced that my sense of humor and particular talents could become shields in order to navigate through those teenage years during which I felt completely alone and uncomfortable within my own skin. Yes, I did have ferociously attentive and devoted parents but I never felt that I could ever approach them with anything serious or felt as if I would be understood. I also even had a few moments of explosiveness against tormentors as I just had had more then enough and could not take even one more second of it. Obviously, I did survive and the feelings of my past which I expressed to you are indeed the nature of that age. So, I am no one special. But, as I teach my young charges year after year, I return to that scared, insecure child I was and I wish that with all of my might that I can lift these kids just enough where they will never, ever feel about themselves as I felt about myself. Of course that is too much to ask but if these kids do fall into some sense of despair as they get a little older, why should they or any child, anywhere ever feel as if the act of talking to someone for help is an insurmountable task?

We OWE it to our children to stand up for them, to protect them and guide them for if we don’t, we will undoubtedly have more children like Tyler Long and Ty Smalley on our hands and souls. Don’t they deserve better? Lee Hirsch obviously feels so and with the release of “Bully,” I urge you to see this film and allow the film to return you to that most vulnerable piece of yourself and just think. No child, anywhere in the world should ever feel this isolated and unprotected and it is inexcusable to me that any child, anywhere should become the target of someone else’s torment for nothing more than simply existing.

For if we cannot even advocate for our children, then what does that say about us as adults?

“Bully” is easily one of 2012’s best films.


Much has been written about the rating for “Bully,” which was originally branded with an R for profanity. Now as you all know, the R rating restricts teenagers from seeing the film unless they are 17 years old or accompanied by an adult so the rating made it impossible for the intended audience to even see the film. This was a hugely stupid move on the part of the ratings powers that be as you are honestly going to tell me that teenagers should not see a film because it contains language that they are already using in their real lives?

Well, thankfully and due to the efforts of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose company released the film (and a man who has carried the reputation of being quite the bully throughout Hollywood) “Bully” has been downgraded to a rating of PG-13, without having to make any edits. So, parents and teachers who may be considering taking youngsters to the film, aside from hearing the “F Bomb” less than five times, there is NOTHING ELSE in the movie that could be considered controversial for their young eyes and ears.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

CAN'T STOP, WON'T STOP, DON'T STOP: a review of "Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone"

Directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

I am remembering a classic sight gag from Rob Reiner’s iconic rock documentary satire “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984). It literally is just a quick, solitary moment perfectly illustrating the continuous downward slide in popularity of the heavy metal band as they slog through their latest tour. It was the sight of a marquis announcing “SPINAL TAP”…directly underneath “PUPPET SHOW.” It was one of a myriad of telling moments about the fragility of remaining in the pop-culture limelight, especially in the world of rock and roll, where aging and remaining on the top of the heap in an ever-shifting popularity climate is precarious. For established rock musicians, that moment certainly provided laughs as well as honest shudders. Granted, Spinal Tap is a fictional band, and a terrible one at that. But, what about within the real world of rock and roll and what if the band that was metaphorically billed underneath a small town puppet show happened to be a band that was not only a good band, but a great band? Not just a band that was heavily celebrated but seismically influential, idiosyncratic, innovative and endlessly inspiring? What if that band happened to be Fishbone?

It was 1985 when I first heard Fishbone. I was 16 years old and I heard them on a late Friday night as I listened to a new music program, broadcast on the untouchable Chicago radio station WXRT-FM. The song was “Party At Ground Zero” and it was one of those times where the sounds were so unlike anything else on the radio, I could do nothing but listen to the entire track with my jaw agape. The song began with a jazzy yet almost dirge like instrumental intro which soon locked into a frantic, relentless double time tempo complete with tight acapella harmonies, New Orleans styled brass, jazz inflected reggae and vice versa, guitar and trombone solos, and nuclear holocaust fears set to a wildly danceable rhythm that was even more aggressive than Prince’s own dance under the mushroom cloud anthem “1999.” It was a chaotic song that seemed to be on the verge of complete self-destruction at any moment. But it was all so intricate and complex that you knew that this band was entirely aware of every sound having its proper place. I was hooked and I was compelled to discover more about this band with the bizarre name of “Fishbone.”

The music of Fishbone is an unquestionably original amalgam of hard rock, punk rock, funk, R&B, soul music, jazz, reggae, ska, hip-hop, blues, metal, gospel (sometimes all within the same song) and whatever else the seven members of the band could cook up within their musical stew. When I did discover some time later that the members of Fishbone were all African-American, I felt as if I had found some brethren as they championed rock music just as I had but with absolutely, positively no apologies to anyone, especially the judgmental and dismissive African American community who rejected the band because of their performance of “white music.” They gave me the strength to hold onto what I loved so dearly just as ferociously and unapologetically, especially as I was raised in an African-American neighborhood but attended a predominantly Caucasian private school therefore being caught in two worlds where I was sadly ridiculed in my own neighborhood for my tastes, appearance and for “talking white.” Because of Fishbone, I began to feel less alone in the world as their artistic loves and social/political outlook mirrored some of my own growing attitudes and world view.

By the time I arrived at college, Fishbone and I had a profound meeting of the heart, mind, and spirit with their landmark 1988 album “Truth and Soul.” That album was the release where the band striped away some of their trademark party brand funhouse lunacy for a more overtly political, pro-African-American outlook with songs like “Subliminal Fascism,” “One Day,” “Slow Bus Moving (Howard Beach Party),” an extraordinary remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” and the soaring, acoustic finale “Change.” The album became a fixture upon my headphones as I walked all over the glorious campus as well as receiving copious amounts of airplay on my college radio program. Yet, what thrilled me was the fact that this band was rising in its notoriety. You could just feel the rumblings in the street as so many people, from friends to strangers, listened to their albums, played their songs all over college radio, wore their custom made paraphernalia featuring that classic logo adorned within this review and spoke rapturously about their increasingly legendary live performances.

By 1991, at the dawn of the release of their game changing double album “The Reality Of My Surroundings,” it seemed as if Fishbone were poised to break through any remaining barriers and take on the mainstream musical landscape on the same level that the Red Hot Chili Peppers accomplished during that same year and every year since. But, sadly it was not to be. The brass ring was just this far out of reach and so unfortunately, and frankly, so unfairly, Fishbone has been relegated to more of a musical obscurity than being fully acknowledged for their seismic contribution and far reaching influence.

This tale of success and failure is the compelling leaping off point of “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone,” filmmakers Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s heartfelt attempt to remedy this musical crime. While not the perfect film as it skates over key areas and even individuals that would make this story complete, I do greatly appreciate how Anderson and Metzler have achieved the current goal that makes music documentaries transcend their genre. They have discovered a greater story (or several stories) to tell beyond the trials and tribulations of the music industry. “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone” not only focuses upon maintaining perseverance, individualism and integrity in an indifferent environment and the symbiotic relationship between band members and how the music is affected when even one element is out of place, the film is most effective when it presents the solidarity and brotherhood contained in the African-American experience. For fans of the band, as well as novices, this film is more than worth your time.

As the film opens, graced with a narration provided by the unmistakable voice of Laurence Fishburne, we learn about the origin of Fishbone, whose members all met during their junior high school years in 1979 as they were bused from the predominantly African-American communities of South Central Los Angeles to the predominantly white communities of the San Fernando Valley. Bassist John Norwood Fisher cut quite the intimidating figure at the new school, quickly aligning himself with new friends who would all eventually form the band. In addition to Norwood’s brother Phillip “Fish” Fisher on drums, Fishbone consisted of Kendall Jones (guitar/vocals), Christopher Dowd (guitar, trombone, vocals), and “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet). After a time of playing together at the Fisher household, Norwood soon met an eccentric, perpetually Cheshire Cat smiling individual named Angelo Moore, whose persistence simultaneously intrigued and irritated Norwood to the point where he smashed a pomegranate smack in the middle of Angelo’s face. Undeterred, Angelo requested to join Norwood’s band, to which he agreed. A wise and especially brilliant decision as Angelo, along with his performance on saxophone, would more than prove his might as an indispensable frontman, lyricist and vocalist of the highest order.

Fishbone’s reputation grew rapidly throughout Los Angeles due to manic energy of their endless live performances as well as their bizarre appearance. They confused everyone who saw them as the band members appeared as if they had arrived from the future or another universe entirely. These were young African-American males with a ferocious sense of independence as they dressed with New Wave, thrift store, punk rock fashions, Mohawks, punk/Rude Boy accessories combined with an unrepentantly “in your face” (ha ha) attitude and aggression. Fishbone arrived from the same astral plane as other African-American musicians who were determined to crash and destroy racial boundaries like Rick James and certainly Prince but Fishbone’s seemed to be the true inheritors of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic mantle and legacy.

White audiences, initially confused, were quick to embrace the band while African-American audiences met the group with skepticism at best and flat out rejection at worst, thus forcing the band to depend upon predominantly white audiences. The reality of their surroundings continued with their record label signing just as they completed high school. However, the record industry experienced much confusion with how to market a band that had no peer. They were “too white” for black radio and white radio did not tend to play black artists if the name “Hendrix” was not present, a situation, which placed Fishbone at the dawn and forefront of creating the alternative music scene (in rock and hip-hop, no less), a landscape they scaled fiercely.

From here, Anderson and Metzler use “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone” to celebrate the history and everlasting legacy of the band in interviews with many of the past and present band members as well as with lovingly expressed tributes from Gwen Stefani, Mike Watt, Les Claypool, Ice-T, Flea and even George Clinton. Most successfully, the film concurrently details the band rise, fall and disintegration of the band’s classic lineup alongside their continued musical soldiering in an even more precarious and indifferent musical landscape as only two of the band’s founding members (Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore) have continued to carry the “Fishbone banner” with a team of new musicians.

In regards to that “Spinal Tap moment,” Anderson and Metzler waste absolutely no time as they present it to us at the film’s outset by first showing us footage from a heroic 1992 California concert and then flash-forwarding to 2007 as the band makes a painfully non-attended series of dates throughout Europe, including Hungary. The sight of these world-class musicians standing on an outdoor stage being viewed by a smattering of people who obviously had no idea of who they were was tremendously saddening to me, so imagine what it must have felt like for Norwood and Angelo, especially as the bonds in their own relationship had begun to show some cracks. But I am getting a hair ahead of myself…

One thing that is noted several times throughout “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone,” from current and former band members along with former music industry associates, was how Fishbone was designed and operated to be a 100% democratic band. Yes, John Norwood Fisher formed the band and in many respects, he is the leader, the ultimate musical and artistic vision was created, honed, nurtured and advanced by every member of the band. Every member wrote material, members traded instruments, there were several lead singers in addition to Angelo Moore and as Norwood mentions how difficult being 100% democratic actually was, the music became what it became because of that decision and subsequent unity.

So, where did everything begins to nosedive internally? Anderson and Metzler do a great job of depicting a situation where the overall success of the band was due to the symbiotic relationship of its members and when one member departed, absolutely everything changed, in many cases for the worse. The first to depart was Kendall Jones, who fell into a depression after the death of his Mother. That event led him to a reunion with his absent Father, which then descended into a bizarre story of cult brainwashing, from which Norwood and close friends and a former fiancée of Kendall’s attempted to rescue him. This event was something that I had only heard scant details about and I was very happy to see how Anderson and Metzler compiled and presented this disturbing piece of the Fishbone story.

Jones’ departure ultimately led to more departures, which in turn increased the odd antics of Angelo Moore, who began to take on a new identity as “Dr. Madd Vibe” and he had also become reliant upon using the vibration fueled yet atonal Theremin on recordings and live performances to the dismay of the remaining members. And sadly, after one incredible yet low selling release, Fishbone was dropped from the very record label that signed them. Now that the original members are down to solely Angelo and Norwood, we are able to gather a front row seat into the yin and yang of their friction and artistic outlook, and the view is deeply compelling. Angelo feels that his creativity is increasingly stifled and Norwood feels as if Angelo is completely out of control, therefore threatening the balance of the revamped Fishbone in regards to which songs they should perform and write, and which venues they may even be able to perform. Here is also where the film delves deeply into the subject matter as we see how the indifference towards the band has created a dire financial situation for its members. Norwood is living “hand to mouth,” while Angelo eventually ends up moving back into his Mother’s house…rent free and with no incentive to hustle harder for more and better gigs to potentially give the band a second chance at the brass ring.

Near the end of the movie is a fantastic sequence between Angelo and Norwood, where the two men finally, FINALLY hash out their grievances and attempt to find some common ground in order to continue forging ahead with their musical visions together. It was like the scene that did not exist in Michael Rapaport’s outstanding “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest,” a film which, among many topics, followed the friendship and friction of rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg.

All of these elements within this documentary work wonders in moving towards the film’s greatest questions of success and failure. Certainly, the arc of the film feels as if we are watching the rise and fall of a great band but just listen to Norwood Fisher’s contemplative viewpoints on what the future of Fishbone could potentially hold if he only made certain choices. And I do believe that his answers will not only surprise you and force you to re-think your views of success and failure, his answers will deeply inspire as well as his reasoning stretches out to explaining and possibly fulfilling his life’s purpose. To that end, the film rises, soars and I believe will make every viewer who chooses to watch understand and root for Fishbone more than ever before.

Even with all of this praise, “Everyday Sunshine: The Story OF Fishbone” possesses what I felt to be was a glaring hole. First of all, the film contains not even one mention of guitarist John Bigham, who joined the band for the recording of “The Reality Of My Surroundings” and later played all of the guitar tracks for their incendiary 1996 album “Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge.” To not even acknowledge his crucial contribution was a terrible mistake on the part of Anderson and Metzler but potentially even worse was not focusing whatsoever upon the new members of the band at all. Yes, I can understand that perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to adhere to a certain narrative but I think that there are crucial questions to be asked about the ones who have been enlisted to carry the Fishbone freak flag into the 21st century and beyond. How do they see their roles in Norwood and Angelo’s musical vision? How have they been accepted, or not, by longtime fans? How do they envision success and failure as they are playing at this point in the band’s 25-year history? Or, for Pete’s sakes, what are their names? This is “Music Journalism 101” in my eyes and I guess that I was stunned that Anderson and Metzler did not even approach this area, especially when they had already delved deeply in all other areas.

But, do not let that criticism deter you from giving this film a try. The music documentary has undergone something of a renaissance within the last few years as we have seen one strong film after another with subjects ranging from Rush, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Elton John & Leon Russell and now, “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone” is another extremely worthy entry into the genre.

And as with all of those other films, and especially with this one…PLAY LOUD!!!!!

“Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone” is NOW AVAILABLE on DVD and in addition to the film, the disc contains several archived live performance clips, deleted scenes, deleted interview segments, plus two audio commentary tracks from the filmmakers and Angelo Moore and Norwood Fisher respectively. So...what are you waiting for????????


Yes, this is a slow time for me during the movie going year as the small amount of new material from me during the previous month could attest. Granted, I do happen to have a small stack of DVDs awaiting my full attention, a level of attention I have had to lightly brush aside this past month due to other life duties.

But, all of that being said, the unexpected hiatus was good for me. Hopefully, this time away has allowed my creative spirit to recharge a bit after the increased output of the winter months which lasted all the way through the Oscar season.

Now, I am beginning to see titles on the horizon that have piqued my attention and will hopefully make this month a more productive one.

1. Currently, I am writing a review for the music documentary "Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone" and that will make its premiere shortly.

2. I recently saw the trailer for the new documentary "Bully," and that has indeed shot to the very top of my must see list. So, we'll see if the film arrives to my city this month.

3. At the end of the month, I am thrilled to see the creative and comedic reunion between Judd Apatow, Jason Segal and Director Nicholas Stoller, the team behind the wonderful "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2009), as they unveil their latest confection, "The Five Year Engagement."

4. Beyond that, I do have ideas floating and percolating for new installments of "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure" and "Savage Cinema Revisits." I also may even have a potential premiere installment of "Savage Cinema's Favorite Movies" as well.

As usual I am getting more than a little ahead of myself. But, it is better to have too many ideas than too few, isn't it?

I'll see you when the house lights go down...