As Henry Rollins states early on in “Bad Brains: A Band in DC,” a definitive documentary on the legendary hardcore band is long overdue. “Legendary” is even understating it a bit, as Bad Brains helped to invent what we know as American hardcore, taking inspiration from the Sex Pistols and The Damned, melding it with their own funk and soul inspired musicality and “positive attitude message” and electric performance style to birth a beast all their own. Bad Brains influenced everyone from Rollins to Minor Threat to the Beastie Boys to the Cro-Mags and more. The new documentary directed by Mandy Stein and Ben Logan attempts to capture and commemorate the history of this band while also dealing with the serious issues they have faced, mostly thanks to wonderfully (and destructively) unhinged lead singer H.R.
“Bad Brains: A Band in DC” hopscotches through time, starting with a nasty confrontation between bassist Darryl Jenifer and H.R. backstage at Chicago’s Congress Theater after a 2007 reunion show. The film then flashes back to 10 months earlier when the band was happily rehearsing in Woodstock, NY, before launching into a blistering title sequence featuring footage of Bad Brains performing in their heyday, with comic book style, almost superhero-esque cartoons introducing the band members. This animatic provides a motif throughout the film that brings specific memories to life, such as H.R. singing a vocal track through a prison pay phone while incarcerated, or a violent outburst on a tour bus in 1994.
Structurally, the film flashes between the past to the 2007 tour, detailing the growth and development of the band from their 1978 inception, through their adoption of punk, to their embrace of rastafarian culture and reggae music, and with all the attendant struggles of a young punk band in the early 1980s, comprised entirely of young black men, no less. Meanwhile, as the past story details the struggle between the band and H.R., their break ups and make ups and reiterations, H.R. is becoming increasingly erratic during the 2007 tour. He taunts audiences, refuses to perform, dances around with a scarf on his head and seems to not have a care in the world when the slavering chants of “BAD BRAINS BAD BRAINS” turn to boos. This is the behavior that sets off Darryl, who calls H.R. a sellout and a joke. This confrontation causes yet another rift in the band, which has experienced many separations and reunions over the years, but can only seem to find the right chemistry with the original lineup.
As a history of Bad Brains and an archive of their incredible performances in the early 80s, this film is a treasure chest of gems. Listening to Henry Rollins or the Foo Fighters‘ Dave Grohl speak about the band with such reverence is a treat and places their work within a context in musical history. However, the documentary’s attempts to do too much bog it down in the middle and the film starts to revolve entirely around H.R. and his myriad issues instead of the band. Of course his mental illness, or fragile psyche or whatever it may be that makes him so genius and so crazy (paging Daniel Johnston) is an integral part of Bad Brains. But in the middle of the movie, it’s just a collection of crazy H.R. stories, which distracts from what the film should really be about, not to mention the jumps between the past and the present (well, 2007), while offering an interesting comparison to the band today doesn’t really achieve the transcendence that something like “Pearl Jam 20” does. The footage of early shows at CBGBs makes you want to get up and mosh, but trying to include too many different storytelling elements prevents you from becoming too close to the material, from really emotionally bonding with it. You wish the filmmakers had stuck with one conceit and then really dug in to extract the meaning, rather than trying to do too much.
Despite it’s overachieving attempts, the film is kinetic, frenetic (how could it not be, with video of H.R. performing in his heyday; The man is the definition of electically charged), and well paced with lots to love for any Bad Brains, punk or music fans. Their tribute is long overdue and we should be thankful that a film recognizing their musical genius, originality and influence exists at all. [B]