Revenge of the Mekons
Directed by Joe Angio
Opens October 29 at Film Forum
Brian Eno famously said that while very few people bought the first Velvet Underground album, most of them went out and formed bands. To paraphrase his statement, it sometimes seems like most Mekons fans have gone out and become rock critics; as with the Velvets, a fair percentage do also seem to have become musicians, given the band’s influence on the alt-country movement. Joe Angio’s documentary covers the band’s 37-year existence in a little more than 90 minutes. While one interview subject enthuses that the band are making their best albums right now, Angio rightly focuses on two periods: the band’s birth in the punk revolution and their reinvention in the mid 80s after discovering folk and country music. Forming in 1977 Leeds, the original Mekons were inspired by the DIY aesthetic of the punk movement, but even then they were suspicious of its tendencies towards self-mythologizing. As told by early member Kevin Lycett, their early single “Never Been in a Riot” was a more realistic reply to the bravado of the Clash’s “White Riot.” Angio relies heavily on relatively recent live footage, although he seems to have access to film of the band at all stages of its existence. (As a general rule, the earlier it is, the rougher it looks.) This is one band portrait that doesn’t stint on music.
Editor Jane Rizzo’s montage mixes interviews with band members and famous fans (Jonathan Franzen’s cogent explanation of the way the Mekons’ music mixes despair, rage and wit makes him sound like the smartest talking head in the film), still photos and concert footage, while dividing the film into sections like “the Mekons vs. America” and “the Mekons vs. the Man.” Those spectators familiar with the band’s history can guess that the latter discusses its ill-fated ventures with major labels Virgin and A&M, neither of which lasted more than one album. A representative of indie label Touch & Go, for whom they recorded for a long stretch, says that Mekons album sales average about 8,000 copies. But there remains something inspiring about their refusal to compromise and their determination to persist and evolve, even in the face of a world that often values empty novelty. Revenge of the Mekons captures this resistance well.