Better to Burn Out?

02/29/2012 4:00 AM |

Better Than Something: Jay Reatard
Directed by Alex Hammond & Ian Markiewicz

Starting production as a classic rock documentary and ending up as an obituary, Better Than Something: Jay Reatard presents a sad, compelling picture of a guy unsuited to anything but punk immortality. Jay Reatard was uniquely driven to record pop-inflected punk rock, to the exclusion of school attendance or a normal adolescence. If Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz’s film cements any one notion about a deceptively complicated guy, it’s that one. Short on dynamic visuals, the film comes alive with old video of Reatard’s multiple bands. He’s a contentious wild man from age 15, a menacing brute thereafter. As his star rises and the stages grow, he seems more and more out of place. Although we know the ending already, it’s hard to imagine its alternate. Especially vital is footage of Reatard’s pre-fame bands Lost Sounds and Angry Angles, who previously existed for his Matador-era fans only on 7″ sleeves or posthumous lists of his many projects. Early 00s group Lost Sounds seem particularly promising here, at least until the footage of Jay tossing multiple chairs at keyboardist Alicja Trout while she asks someone in the audience to give him a hug.

Again and again, the film makes clear that Jay was a world-class bridge burner, someone easy to go get a beer with, but incredibly difficult to have as a long-term bandmate. At a critical glance his constant project-shifting and eventual solo work seemed like prickly eccentricity giving way to a more focused vision. The film makes clear that it’s the only way it could have gone. Despite obvious social difficulty, his easy charm in interview segments complicates that picture. Listening to him talk about getting an obscure band education from Kurt Cobain’s copious interview namedrops is wildly relatable for just pre-internet types. He’s the sort of jerk many of us have known and befriended.

Even more illuminating is the glimpse given into Reatard’s upbringing in low-income Memphis neighborhoods. The commonly assumed indie-rock backstory of suburban privilege bears little relation to his. While he presents it with mostly good cheer—character built, song-writing material mined—there are legitimately shocking details here, hints that his story could have ended unhappily in myriad ways even without the availability of rock n’ roll excess. The filmmakers’ handling of the self-destructive tendencies that led to his death is tasteful. The issue isn’t dodged, but the time devoted to it is relatively brief.

It’s clear that this wasn’t the film Hammond and Markiewicz set out to make, though. There is a bit of an awkward tonal shift between the warts-and-all portrait of Jay Reatard’s life as it was happening, and the talking head eulogizing that became a sad, necessary inclusion. Unrealized aspirations take on more tragic weight, of course. We won’t get a Jay Reatard album in which he plays the cello, or a country record under his given name Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr. But what we got, what’s captured here, is a damn sight better than better than nothing.

Opens March 2 at the Nitehawk Cinema