If you’re looking for a music documentary about a band struggling to stick together, battling various demons along the way, before finally hitting the big time, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a music documentary about a great album, unrecognized in its time, that has aged into a bonafide classic, you’ll want to watch something else. Instead, “Rye Coalition: The Story Of The Hard Luck 5” tells a tale that will be familiar to anyone, anywhere, who has logged countless miles, long hours, buckets of blood, sweat, tears, and countless dollars into playing in a rock ‘n roll band only to arrive years later in the same place where you started. Chronicling the journey of the titular Jersey City band from underground punk/hardcore scene luminaries to major label signed casualty doesn’t take the tragic dimension you think it might. Rather it reveals that at the core of Rye Coalition are five guys whose passion for playing together has largely never changed.
Now, before this review gets much further, if you’ve never heard of Rye Coalition, director Jenni Matz doesn’t provide any additional context. This is very much for folks who, if not fans of the band already, at least know the milieu in which they first started, and know record labels like Gern Blandsten and Troubleman Unlimited, as easily as they do the catalogs of Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard. And if you don’t know what any of those things mean, you’ve probably stopped reading by this point already. But for everyone else, Rye Coalition put themselves on the map with two things in the 1990s: the self-titled, split 12″ with Karp and relentless touring. The former features a song that is still one of the finest the genre ever produced (“White Jesus Of 114th Street”), while on stage, the group proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And they were on the road so much that if you didn’t see the band live in the latter half of that decade, you weren’t trying.
Things moved quickly for the hard working band. Before the aughts arrived, they issued two full length LPs—Hee Saw Dhuh Kaet and The Lipstick Game—which saw them cement a sound that grabbed the angular, odd time signature background of the hardcore/post-hardcore scene they emerged from, with a distinct love for straight up FM rock ‘n roll. But they got the mix down just right, delivering it with unwavering commitment, ferocity, and a sly dose of humor as well. They continued to hit the road, work odd jobs between tours to keep the rent and bills paid, before heading back out on tour. Rye Coalition went all in, not aiming for massive fame, but just to be successful enough to make a decent enough living playing music. Then an opportunity came their way, one that has launched careers into the stratosphere, while bringing even more bands crashing and burning to the ground: they signed with DreamWorks, a major label. At first, things were promising. They had enough budget to land Dave Grohl to produce their record, and they even hit the road with Foo Fighters for a spell, but then DreamWorks was bought out, their record was shelved, and suddenly everything was uncertain.
Utilizing an impressive wealth of archival footage (Rye Coalition never seemed let a moment go by that was undocumented), plus interviews with Steve Albini, Jon Theodore, Phil Manley, Tim Green, Jared Warren, Allison Wolfe, and more, Matz tracks the two decades of the band’s existence in a brisk 77-minutes. The “hard luck 5” moniker stuck on the band isn’t just a cute nickname, but an accurate description of a career that has always been one-step forward, two-steps back. Sometimes, they were their own self-saboteurs, particularly when it comes frontman Ralph Cuseglio, whose antagonism and braggadocio alienated club owners, other bands, and more. But there is one discussion that the doc sidesteps around that could’ve used a bit more exploration.
For many, the band’s shift in style, from post-hardcore mixed with rock ‘n roll to what is described in the documentary as “butt rock,” was an unwelcome one. When finally released a couple years after it was recorded, following the DreamWorks debacle, Curses revealed itself to be their most straight up, balls to the walls, rock record. But it could be argued that it stripped away all the elements that made Rye Coalition a unique band in the first place, and left it with something that, at its worst, had tunes that would sit alongside Jet on every FM rock dial in the country. Was it a calculated career move to go in that direction? An inevitable creative destination given that classic rock influences were never too far way from the band’s playbook? Any discussion from the band about their songwriting process would’ve been welcome, but it’s one of the documentary’s most glaring omissions. How they chose to marry their modest career ambitions and their creative desires is something every band faces, and particularly for a band that saw everything from playing underground clubs with no PAs and sleeping on the floor, to performing in arenas and having a hotel room every night. It would’ve been valuable insight.
But, maybe Rye Coalition isn’t that band. They were never going to have their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and if you could become rich by simply having a good time, Rye Coalition would be millionaires a few times over by now. The scale and scope of “Rye Coalition: The Story Of The Hard Luck 5” matches that of the band themselves; it’s scrappy, honest, and doesn’t reach for what it can’t grasp. It might not be the most thorough account of the band’s musical moves to date (in case you’re wondering, they’re still knocking around Jersey City, popping up now and again to play gigs), but it’s the most authentic. And when you watch the most recent footage of the band ripping it up on stage, you understand immediately why breaking up was never an option. [B]
Rye Coalition: The Story Of The Hard Luck 5 is now available on DVD.