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The one-night-only, hometown debut showing of MC5 — A True Testimonial, the problematic, nine-year-long project headed by director David Thomas and producer Laurel Legler, was nothing short of triumphant. It was apparent that the sellout DFT crowd — mercifully short on garage glitterati, long on aging fans and friends of the MC5 — had waited a long time for this.
From the haunting opening shots of the Grande Ballroom’s interior (as it is now) to the band’s final show at the Grande New Year’s Eve 1972, the chronologically arranged, song-driven documentary is both engaging and nearly seamless in terms of technique and craft. After just a few minutes you forget that you are watching a documentary. What’s remarkable is how the film works on multiple levels; it’s a drive-by history lesson on the ’67 Detroit riots as much as a discourse on the subversive soul of American rock ’n’ roll of the late ’60s, as seen through the eyes of one-time manager John Sinclair and the band members.
The story is rich with social commentary, and the combustible beauty, ugliness and humor that was the MC5. It tender-handedly contextualizes the band from their “shop-rat” roots through a spiritually bereft, painful-to-watch slide into oblivion. Worth the price of admission alone are the stinging live performances (the footage from a Wayne State show reveals just how startling the band was live) and the poignant Leni Sinclair images that captured the unsullied man/boy spirit of young band ready to take on the world.
Wisely sticking to the key players (the band, A&R men, producers, managers and ex-wives) for sources, there isn’t a single moment in the film that seems superfluous; each scene, each line of dialogue, is essential to the story. Never do the talking head interviews become tedious — the film doesn’t wane under the weight of impotent dialogue or soporific quotes. At one point, quick-cut scenes between Kramer and John Sinclair are revealing and hilarious — two opposing opinions cheekily cross-referencing each other.
As each band member is introduced in the film, a flurry of applause ensues, the loudest for guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Here, both on stage and in archival interviews, Smith (who died this month in 1994) has an almost saintly rock ’n’ roll innocence, a smooth-skinned rock star manner with the vulnerability of an orphan.
Singer Rob Tyner (who passed in 1991) is lucid and eloquent — just sweetness personified. No bitterness in his tone, no pining for lost days. The surviving members, Davis, Thompson and Kramer are full of humor with a sharpness that you — and maybe they — can’t grin away. John Sinclair is droll and bright, tracing the lineage of the White Panther movement to his personal drug busts. The interviews with Becky Tyner and Smith’s first wife Sigrid Dobat reveal two strong, expressive women who were very much in touch with the careers and lives of the band.
Kramer, from his opening tour de Detroit in a souped-up GTO, articulates his story insightfully, full of self-deprecating asides and forthright admissions, without tint of wistful nostalgia. In fact, the film shuns rosy hindsight, yet the story is told with unusual empathy.
Kramer demythologizes the band while at the same time mythologizing it; the band’s seemingly overreaching political fortitude did nothing to elevate them to another level. If anything, it hindered them. In the end, after stripping away the band’s politicking, there was at the core a me-and-the-boys joy/woe that made for a fucking phenomenal rock ’n’ roll band.
Some of the best films about rock ’n’ roll — Leon Russell’s tour film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Dylan’s Eat The Document, Sex Pistols’ The Filth and the Fury and the Clash’s Westway to the World — go lengths in attempting to at least capture the artist’s working psyche. A True Testimonial does this and more. It summarizes a collective psyche that was constantly evolving, without attaching unreasonable meaning to the band’s importance.
What is remarkable about the storyline — and any decent rock ‘n’ roll band together long enough will have one — is you forget just how topical the band was, how bent on political and cultural change, how fearlessly (albeit naively) they embraced the power of rock ‘n’ roll as a means of a real American revolution, only to be let down in the end. In it we see Danny Fields (then an A&R man) detail the paltry MC5 record deal with Elektra; producer Jon Landau recalls the somersaulting aspects in the making of 1970’s Back in the U.S.A.; the heady unrest at the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and so on.
The film shows a band whose spiritual, emotional and musical apex was, like any ephemeral, life-changing cultural moment, built on timing. The film then traces its dissolve, and shows how the members were left to flounder in a haze of poor decision-making, demoralizing gigs, drug addiction, poverty and beyond. The film depicts the band’s demise with consideration and understanding; never does the tone border the maudlin or use tragedy as a cheap button-pushing device.
There will never again be anything like the MC5, no matter how many bands claim an artistic alliance. Hence, the film is a necessary (and momentous) testament to the band. The film as a cultural snapshot is timely now too — here was a band essentially fighting the good fight for personal freedoms.
In the post-film Q&A with producer Legler, director Thomas and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson, the most affecting thing about the band comes from Thompson lips. He says, “I still don’t have a dime, none of us do.” Of course.
Look for a theatrical release and subsequent DVD with extra footage of MC5 — A True Testimonial sometime next year.
Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.