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by Michael Rowin
November 13, 2008 5:35 AM
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REVIEW | Fan-dumb: Josh Koury's "We Are Wizards"

A scene from Josh Koury's "We Are Wizards." Image courtesy of Brooklyn Underground Films.

Full disclosure: I have never read any of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. I have never seen any of the blockbuster movies based on her series. That I plan to never do so is not entirely because of any perceived intellectual and emotional poverty of these books and movies--I know plenty of smart people who enjoy the Harry Potter stories, and there could be, at extremely generous moments, a certain side of me that would consider giving them a shot. But not as long as there are movies like "We Are Wizards," and not as long as there exist the Harry Potter-crazed subjects who comprise this painful documentary's meretricious survey of kitschy fandom.

In the spirit of "Trekkies" and the recent proliferation of docs focused on devotees of mildly eccentric cultural phenomena ("Spellbound," "Wordplay," and guess what, there's a Dungeons and Dragons film a-comin'), "We Are Wizards" presents a panoply of Potter groupies whose love for their hero is shared with the world in the form of Harry-themed rock bands, alternate soundtracks to the movies, and protests against cease-and-desist policies leveled at fan sites. In other words, over-proud, geeky "expansions" of Rowlings' universe, as the film's one interviewed professor banally deems it with academic authority, shielding the stuntedness of adolescent fantasy with self-deprecating and pseudo-irreverent adorability.

Director Josh Koury, however, believes these Potterites represent a sort of power-to-the-people explosion of imagination and anticorporate resistance. He takes great pains, for instance, to frame a young woman's organized boycott of Warner Bros. (in reaction to the corporation's strict attitude toward fans using the Potter name on websites, et al) as a courageous stance against unfair copyright laws. The possibility that her fight might ultimately make Warner cognizant of a marketing strategy in which it can rake in even more money by allowing Potter forums to advertise their brand for free is never explored.

Similarly, Koury spends time (far too much time) with various adults, teenagers, and young children's "Wizard rock" cult followings--all located on the musical spectrum somewhere between talentless They Might Be Giants-esque cutecore and contrived attempts at Daniel Johnston's brand of naive timidity--as if the mere novelty of a precocious seven-year-old screaming about dragons while assaulting a guitar were some sort of subversive act of pop-culture appropriation.

Also thrown into "We Are Wizards"' unwieldy mix as a way to prove the Potter lovers' rebelliousness is one of those religious fundamentalists who genuinely believe the series seduces youngsters toward occult practices. Ironically, just like the pro-Potter majority this alarmist woman wildly overvalues Rowling's "magic," whether it's the author's insidious, corrupting influence or her preternatural ability to inspire creativity.

There's not much creativity on display in these Harryheads' "original" takes on the Potter series. "Wizard People, Dear Readers," an alternate soundtrack to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," features self-satisfied conspirator Brad Neely's vocal interpretations of the movie. Clearly taken with himself and his minor celebrity, Neely chuckles annoyingly at his own naughty, illegal spin on the movie. His underground approach? Little more than throwing a few "fucks" into bombastic speeches spoken in an insufferable, warlock-evoking tremolo. But the most damning evidence of Potter-disciple mediocrity might be Koury's film itself, an unholy mess.

"We Are Wizards" is the kind of documentary that complements voiceovers with completely unrelated industrial film clips from the 1950s, devotes inordinate, pointless amounts of running time to its subjects' extra-Potter activities (do we care that Neely's Potter fame helped his cartooning career?), and considers prepubescent girls' fawning adoration of a band called Draco and the Malfoys worthy of serious study.

Even at 79 minutes "We Are Wizards" is endless and, to cut to the heart of the matter, nothing more than an advertisement for an entertainment juggernaut-cum-lifestyle that needs word of mouth like a billionaire needs a tax break.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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4 Comments

  • HPfanatic | May 4, 2009 2:24 AMReply

    I want to say two things before I begin. First, I am adult who is a huge Potter fan. Next, I wanted to ask if any thinks it was a poor choice do a review on a documentary that contains a subject that you have such a hatred for and are unable to give a review that anyone could call close to being unbiased?

    I will be one of the first to say that is an awful documentary. I think most of the director's choices were terrible. I had never heard of Brad Neely or his alternate soundtrack before. This might be "interesting" to a few, but I think the documentary would have done much better without him. I also wondered why I had never heard of this girl that (supposedly) led this boycott. I soon realized that she had little to do with it and was only a "member" of the fandom for a very short period of time. Is anyone else wondering why he wasted time showing how she wanted to be a racecar driver? I know that there are plenty of better choices for this role.

    I can understand the director's choice of wizard rock bands. Ones like Harry and the Potters or Draco and the Malfoys are "the founding fathers of wizard rock". When they started, this was not popular and many fans thought it was silly or weird so I think they deserve to be included because they are an important part of the HP fandom. The band Hungarian Horntails is a bit unique because nearly all wizard rock bands consist of teenagers and 20 or 30 somethings. Most fans find these kids cute and applaud their effort to make a "band". However, I think they spent way to much time on them. (Also, there are hundreds of other wizard rock bands with various sounds and varying amounts of talent.)

    Other things I disliked were the pointless clips from the 50's and the nutty religious hater. Neither have anything to do with the HP fandom. I wish that this documentary would have hit on other areas of the fandom and maybe have even included one or two "regular" fans.

  • wileywiggins | December 6, 2008 2:17 AMReply

    I passed the film up during its festival run here, and I have little to no interest in Harry Potter, but Brad Neely's Wizard People... is a bit more sublime than sticking a couple of expletives in the dialogue, and the dismissal of him in this review crosses the line from criticism to biliously personal player-hatery.

  • jmcnally | November 14, 2008 6:41 AMReply

    Hear hear. As a fellow Muggle, I thought my negative review was the only one: http://www.torontoscreenshots.com/2008/03/05/we-are-wizards/

  • sasha-ann | November 14, 2008 4:26 AMReply

    I haven't seen this film, but I would like to comment that Rowin is one of the most interesting, intelligent people writing about film today. His reviews are the FIRST thing I click on, and even if I disagree with some of his observations, I am always moved to think in a more nuanced way. In a media landscape dominated by self-promoting smug-sters and circle jerk - I mean film - festivals, it's refreshing to read someone so independently minded and honestly critical. Thanks Indiewire! Oh yeah: Joshua Michael - the HP books are fun to read...to kids.