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How to Make a Documentary About a Band, Fishbone Style

How to Make a Documentary About a Band, Fishbone Style

If a filmmaker is committed to being honest, no band’s story worth telling is easy. If it’s a look backward, you only (!) have to contend with multiple, often volatile, personalities. But when the music is still a going concern, you also must deal with the band as an entity unto itself.

Such was the case with “Everyday Sunshine,” Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s documentary about Fishbone, the punk/ska/funk band formed in 1979 in South Central, Los Angeles. And one founding member, bassist Norwood Fisher, was skeptical about the documentary from the start.

“It’s kind of like putting a period on something and I feel like we’re still writing the paragraph,” he says.

So the directors strove to turn the period into an ellipsis, walking a tightrope that allowed them to present Fishbone as a living entity and continuing musical force while also documenting their many flaws. indieWIRE caught up with Metzler, Anderson, Fisher and Moore to discuss the process of keeping it real.

How did you get turned on to Fishbone’s music?

Lev Anderson: I heard them when my father brought home their first EP. He took me to see them and it’s the perfect music for a 10-year-old to bug out to. Then I kind of lost track of them, went to college and they popped back up on the radar. I approached Chris and he was familiar with the band, and he was into it. So that’s how we started thinking about it and then the band was playing in San Francisco one night and we went to check them out. We approached the guys that night.

Chris Metzler: I was familiar with this band Fishbone, but I don’t know that I could ever identify a Fishbone song. When Lev and I talked about why this would make such an interesting documentary, I was just intrigued by the eccentric characters that make up the band in this unique social and cultural backdrop for South Central LA. That was the first thing I said: “Wait, there’s this punk band from South Central LA?”

Why did you choose to highlight Fishbone’s failure to rise to mainstream stardom? Where there alternative ways you wanted to approach the material?

Chris: Fishbone was both a success and a failure at the same time. I think the reasons we decided to explore Fishbone based on success and failure is that the band always thought that success was creating something unique and new, and they definitely succeeded at that. But at the same time, the prices that they paid for doing something different didn’t quite result in the financial rewards (received by) some of the bands they inspired.

Lev: One of the bigger challenges for Chris and I was… (is) this is a historical film or is it more of a character-driven story where you have Norwood and Angelo set up as these two main characters? We wanted a balance of the two. We definitely get the history stuff in there, but then we didn’t want to treat the band as, like, this museum piece where their career is over. We wanted to treat them as a living entity, but unfortunately for the band, the fact that they don’t make a lot of money is kind of a drag for them. And it would’ve been dishonest not to show some of that because — I think for Angelo more than Norwood — that’s an ongoing issue for him because he works so hard and he just wants to get paid. I think a lot of that comes from living in LA where you see all this Hollywood stuff constantly coming out around you. And there’s always new stars bubbling up. Somebody like Angelo just keeps working at it and I certainly don’t think of Fishbone as a failure. We try to leave it up to the audience.

How did you feel about how they framed this issue?

Norwood Fisher: That is something — that’s one of those points where I’m like we’re still writing the story. It doesn’t mean that it can’t pan out that way, although most people would say you are past your prime in that regard. But to be honest, stranger things have happened. My own thing is that I don’t want to blame anybody for it. I would like to take responsibility for it — whatever the fuck had happened.

Angelo Moore: I think it’s fair because it’s just a part of reality. It’s unfair and unfortunate, but it’s real. It’s like racism is unfair and unfortunate and the music business with Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and a lot of black rock-and-roll artists and blues artists who were around in the past, it’s unfair and unfortunate but it’s a part of American history. So they had to put that out there.

How did you approach Angelo and Norwood about making the documentary?

Chris: Lev and I approached them one rainy night in SF and the guys were very nice but maybe a little skeptical. There’d been several other people who’d started documentaries about the band in the past and hadn’t completed them, so I think they were suspicious of starting again and maybe the film not finishing up. They were open and we passed along a DVD of a documentary of mine. Angelo and Norwood saw it and they were just like, “Oh, you guys are a little bit weird so you might understand Fishbone.”

When Chris and Lev approached you about making the documentary, what were your reactions to them?

Norwood: My first reaction was that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do a documentary on the band because I felt like it was like doing an autobiography and I felt like we needed a little bit more time before we wrote that story. It’s kind of like putting a period on something, and I feel like we’re still writing the paragraph. So at first I was like, “Nah, I don’t think so.” And we’ve had a few people begin the process and not complete it, but they gave us their previous work and after seeing it, you got the feeling that at least they have follow-through. That helped a little bit.

I thought, that should be done when we’re like 60 or 70. I’m still waiting in my mind.

What were Angelo and Norwood’s reactions to the film?

Chris: One of the things that Angelo said at one time was “That’s real, that’s genuine.” So for filmmakers, it’s kind of nice when your subject matter sees it and isn’t expecting this puff piece but at the same time don’t feel it’s exploited them.

Lev: We sat them both down together to watch the film and it was a rough cut. Most of the film was there, but it was really funny. Norwood seemed slightly disappointed that we didn’t show the band as the complete trainwreck that they were at the time. He wanted it to be more of this total reality show thing where you see Angelo doing his various self-destructive behaviors. We were around for some of that, but that’s not what we were aiming for. And it’s when we have screenings where Angelo and Norwood would do Q&As and it’s funny to see Angelo in the audience laughing at himself on the screen.

Norwood: I was really comfortable with letting it all hang out. I’m not attached to looking good and I think that all bands are crazy, so I don’t think that we’re the only ones that have the problems that we have. I was like, “Fuck it. Let the shit fly.” But really, I think at the end of the day it’s tasteful. Maybe I’m kind of ghetto-tacky, I don’t know, or people can interpret it as that. I was just like, this is real. Sometimes it was really tense and hardcore and I wasn’t afraid to be seen or if people saw me in an unflattering light. I didn’t care. I don’t care, in general. I became an adult during the we-don’t-give-a-fuck era. And it stayed with me.

Were you wanting it to be more of a reality show?

Norwood: I don’t watch TV, in general. So I’m not so related to that, but I am a fan of Jerry Springer. (laughs) I didn’t want it to be either one. That’s not what I was looking for. At the end of the day, it shows just enough of the tension and maybe it could have a little more, but that’s where we were at. Angelo and I wouldn’t talk for long periods of time and I didn’t have shit to say to him. And it was really on the verge of me kicking his fucking ass periodically. So, fortunately, I have enough restraint to not go there.

Was there anything you feel they should’ve included?

Angelo: Yeah, but I don’t like talking about that because if that was the case, the movie wouldn’t have came out. So I got to have a really neutral standpoint when it comes to how they put it together and what’s fact and what’s fiction. ‘Cause it’s a lot of fact and a lot of fiction, and different truths, I’ll say, in the movie. Some I agree to and some I don’t agree to, but it’s not about that anymore. They just put it together and it’s a really good interpretation I felt, from their standpoint of what they see Fishbone as.

How many years does the footage account for? How was it documenting them?

Chris: The footage in the film tells a story of 30 years of Fishbone, from junior high at the age of 13 and them touring up until a year ago. A lot of the filming we did, which was the present-day portrait of the band, covers about 3½ years but due to the generosity of other filmmakers and fans, we were able to take footage shot in the early ’80s and tried to make sure we covered the whole 30 years and weave it together like a quilt.

Norwood: First, they’re nice guys and immediately I began to appreciate the fact that they were interested enough to be there and get that close. Sometimes they’d ride with us on the buses or in vans and sometimes they had their vehicles. They’d give us just enough space and be like, we don’t want to crowd you out. They were very conscious and gracious during the whole process and it made it easy.

Has the documentary helped bring back some of the original members?

Angelo: No.

Norwood: Well, yeah.

Angelo: Yeah. One of them is trying to sue us now.


Norwood: Dirty Walt is back in the band —

Angelo: I don’t know if the documentary brought Walt back–

Norwood: The documentary brought Walt back because we were doing the score and Chris suggested that we bring Walt in to play on the tracks and that opened the door to Walt being back in the band.

What’s been the experience with screening the film on the festival circuit?

Chris: We screened it at a lot of different places and some crowds never heard of Fishbone before. But people from kids all the way to older people relate. One of the funnier screenings was in St. George, Utah where we screened the film and the curtain came up and they performed. And there was no alcohol being served, but just from the show we got a bunch of old lady Mormons out there dancing.

Norwood: The first place I felt like a rock star was in Salt Lake City. It scared me that I felt like a rock star. (to Angelo) You might not remember that show, but we played in the Rand Bowl, some rodeo thing. Two thousand people showed up. All these girls was jumping on stage, kissing us and it was the first time that happened in Salt Lake City. I enjoyed it and had a guilty rock-star feeling at the time.

Chris: That’s the thing — it’s not surprising because we were hoping for this, but you never know until you get a film in front of an audience and see how they’re going to respond. But we screened at about 100-plus festivals in the last year. Some small cities and small towns of the US and internationally, and the thing that’s been a surprise is the diversity of crowds and the sheer number people who haven’t even heard of Fishbone when they walked in the door, checking out the film.

Have you gotten new fans just from the documentary being out?

Norwood: A lot of people who just discovered the band through the trailer and a lot of promotions and people who discovered the band and they’re like our age or older; they just missed us. And younger people. So it’s having a positive effect.

Angelo: It’s making the generation gap close up because the movie is a theatrical thing, it’s not the music, so it’s covering a different market and attracting different people.

What’s next for the documentary?

Chris: We have about 30-40 cities booked up until the end of year. During that time, we will be doing week-long runs. The band has a new album coming out and is going to go on tour, so we’ll be able to get them at some Q&As. After we do the theatrical run, we’re currently looking to lock in a home-video distributor and then the film will be seen nationwide on PBS in January/ February.

What are your ultimate hopes for Fishbone going into 2012?

Norwood: We have begun working on the follow-up because we have a CD coming out in conjunction with the movie. And we’re actually working on the follow-up to that and thinking about the follow-up to that. So hopefully we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and building a new paradigm and as the internet has become a more and more powerful place to engage with people who become fans, to take more advantage of that paradigm and continue to grow our audience, you know? Ultimately, in my mind there is no limit.

We see your mom a lot in the film. Did she see it?

Angelo: She likes it. But she still don’t like punk rock.

Pale Griot Film opens “Everyday Sunshine” in New York October 7 and Los Angeles October 21.

“Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” – documentary trailer from Tilapia Film on Vimeo.

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