Vice's 'New Garage Explosion!!' flick lights up but never catches fire

Categories: Film Review
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The soul of rock n' roll doesn't live in a stadium--it resides in dive bars, in grungy clubs, in run-down venues where the floors are slick with a layer of spilled booze and stale sweat.  Garage rock is a distillation of the spirit that makes rock n' roll so magnetic, and the recent documentary New Garage Explosion!!: In Love With These Times (full video) attempts to construct a comprehensive picture of the garage movement in America out of interviews and live recordings of some of the genre's major players, from rising stars to lifers. 

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It's an admirable aim, and directors Joseph Patel and Aaron Brown reach for authenticity by allowing the stories to be told by the musicians that are deeply entrenched in the garage scene. But in doing so, the film feels scattershot and unfocused, stitched together from piles of footage that jump from one buzz band to the next without much regard for continuity.

New Garage Explosion!! is not a history, it's a snapshot. Trying to cover everything from genre legends MC5 to upstarts like Vivian Girls proves to be a tough task, and so the doc mostly lingers on the recent cadre of Scion-and-Vice-approved bands that have pulled in loads of attention via glowing reviews on Pitchfork or other similar music sites.  It starts promisingly with images of amps and drumkits being carried through dingy venues as part of every group's pre-show load-in ritual, calling immediate attention to the DIY spirit of the movement (everyone's their own roadie). Then it smashes headfirst into a riotous performance by the late Jay Reatard, who staggers, screams, and pisses on the stage as firecrackers explode next to him.  Interviews with figures like Reatard, Mick Collins (of Gories/Dirtybombs fame), Thee Oh Sees, Magic Kids, and The Black Lips range from insufferable to heartfelt, with Cullen Omori of The Smith Westerns coming off terribly and Pierced Arrows frontman Fred Cole providing one of few sincere moments as he tears up at the thought of his wife/bandmate buying him a vinyl cutting machine for his birthday. It's the veterans of garage rock who present themselves and their passions in the best light.

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Jay Reatard, RIP
But, speaking of passions, it's difficult to discern exactly what kind of audience NGE!! is gunning for.  Those who already have a vested interest in the garage rock scene will find little new information here (the doc doesn't break any truly unknown groups), while those whose favorite bands lie outside the genre's ramshackle assaults might have difficulty in determining why these particular bands, with their very similar approaches to music, deserve their time.  There are illuminating moments here, but they revolve mostly around the out-group of tiny, fiercely independent labels that form symbiotic relationships with the bands whose material they support and distribute via the ages-old medium of punk-style 7" records.  The physical artifacts of the garage sound from the 60's through today are sought after like gems by rabid collectors, and their exorbitant jumps in price are stunning to note, especially given their humble, homemade origins.

As the film trudges through the crumbling homes and crash-pads where garage rock is born, skateboards and old VHS tapes lying in corner heaps, you get a sense of just how much falls by the wayside in pursuit of pure rock vitriol (mentions about practicing all week to play for 30 to 50 people on the weekend and unfulfilling day jobs make solid impressions), but it's hard to escape the feeling like you already know these bands, their struggles, and their personal investment--it might even mirror your own.  In the end, even though there are funny and sometimes emotional moments to be found in NGE!!, it's hard to unreservedly recommend spending time watching filmed soundbytes from bands that have already been the focus of so much industry hype, especially when you could be out at our very own Hexagon Bar or the Turf Club experiencing the real thing for yourself.

You can watch the entirety of New Garage Explosion!!: In Love With These Times both on YouTube and at VBS.TV.

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