Fred “Sonic” Smith
In the late 60’s, the hard-edged psychedelic sound of Detroit’s Motor City 5 was unlike anything else. Despite only limited success during their relatively short career, the MC5’s sound and attitude influenced everything from punk to metal, from the Seattle grunge scene to the current trend of modern garage bands like The Hives and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. David C. Thomas’ documentary follows their entire career from formation to their ultimate break-up, including the craziness that seemed to follow the band everywhere.
This is Spinal Tap forever changed the rock documentary, showing the humorous aspects of rock music and the music business, and in the last year, a number of qualities documentaries-the They Might Be Giants film Gigantic, Mayor of Sunset Strip (currently in theatres), and the upcoming Metallica: Some Kind of Monster–have shown that it’s not all laughs. MC5 * A True Testimonial is an interesting counterpoint, since it shows how different things were back in the 60’s, particularly with how much easier it was for bands to get attention.
Coming from poor upbringings, the band’s origin is like something out of Fight Club, with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith challenging singer Rob Tyner to a fistfight, leading to mutual respect and the formation of a band. The MC5’s fierce music and attitude built them a hometown fanbase, and their regular gig at Detroit’s Grande ballroom got them discovered by 60’s political activist, John Sinclair. As their manager, Sinclair helped them solidify their nihilistic image, while getting them involved in his radical left wing “White Panther” party. Their political stance made the band a target for police oppression, as well as getting them an FBI file as being dangerous subversives. Posing for publicity phones with machine guns didn’t help matters, although it did help build their image among those opposed to the burgeoning war in Vietnam. After being signed to Elektra Records, the band ran afoul of the censors for using the word “m*therf*ck*r” in their liner notes, but when the label gets rid of the offending text, the friction ensued gets the band dropped. From there, everything goes downhill, from disastrous recording experiences to drug abuse and conflicting band politics.
Although Thomas’ documentary takes a serious look at the band and its music, one can’t help but think of Spinal Tap as the camera follows the surviving members of the band around Detroit, listening to their philosophies about what made the band so great. Somehow, they’ve managed to sustain their attitudes, despite decades of relative obscurity. It would have been nice to see them interviewed together or to have testimonials from other artists around at the time, like Iggy Pop. It also could have been good to hear from acts that have been influenced by the band, something that could make a great follow-up.
This solid documentary doesn’t just focus on the band and its history, also showing what the Detroit area was like during the legendary “summer of love”, a rather contradictory phrase to the race riots and looting that ensued during that period.
While it may not be as visually impressive as other modern documentaries, the information is well compiled and edited. The archival footage of the band performing on stage and on television is worth the price of admission. Their onstage antics are entertaining and impressive when you realize that most of it is over thirty years old, predating similar theatrics from Kiss and Alice Cooper.
Few but the band’s devout fans will be familiar with all of the band’s blues-driven rock music that makes up the soundtrack; most will only know their battle cry, “Kick Out the Jams”. It’s certainly full of many musical surprises showing that the band’s sound was far more multi-faceted than some might assume.
Out of the limelight for many years, the MC5 are rarely name-checked by younger bands, many of whom have been influenced by second generation MC5 fans, but the movie does help show the historical importance of a band that younger rock fans (and bands) should know more about.
The only real criticism is that the movie is far too long at two hours, peaking midway with the band’s rise to success. As is often the case, it’s not as easy to watch the surviving members discuss the unfortunate events that led to the band’s ultimate break-up either.
The Bottom Line:
As band documentaries come back in fashion, it makes sense that the story of one of the great unspoken rock pioneers is finally revealed. Thomas has done a commendable job putting together a movie that shows the band’s rise and fall in an interesting and entertaining way, making this one of the stronger rock documentaries of the last few years. If you truly love rock music, you absolutely must see this movie.