Saturday, November 22, 2014

Filmage: Descendents/ALL, all at once

Like all successful documentaries, Filmage is a work born out of both love and advocacy. In many ways, this is a straightforward rock doc dealing with two great American bands, Descendents and ALL, which you could, if you were so inclined, pigeonhole with the genre tag "punk." But in another sense, it's a probe into the strange, imbalanced symbiosis between these two bands, the way they're at once exactly the same entity and entirely different beasts.

If you don't know the basic facts, the saga is pretty simple. From roughly 1982 through 1987, Descendents, with a fluid lineup that always included drummer-mastermind Bill Stevenson, recorded several albums' worth of short, brilliant hardcore-meets-pure-pop, often driven by adolescent love/heartache but also at times bracingly bitter or audaciously silly. The musical spectrum was just as wide, ranging from timeless rock and roll to some sort of mutant DIY prog. The band's frontman, Milo Aukerman, wanted to pursue a career in biology, so he left the band several times, eventually on what seemed like a permanent basis. The remaining members kept right on going, changing their name to ALL (the name of the final early-era Descendents LP, as well as the band's insular, funny-serious belief system) recruiting a series of different singers, and touring incessantly and releasing new albums at a steady pace through the early aughts. At first, they performed the Descendents songs everyone wanted them to play, but eventually, they began focusing exclusively on ALL material.

Anyone who's seen Filmage, or paid attention to these bands over the years, knows the outcome of this story well. Basically, ALL never really "caught on" in the sense that the Descendents did. While Descendents were greeted with a hero's welcome when they returned in the mid-’90s with the stellar Everything Sucks LP, ALL just sort of hummed along, eventually finding themselves opening for forgettable Warped Tour bands on increasingly unfulfilling tours.

No need to be dramatic about it, but this imbalance is a shame. The ALL body of work is extraordinary, and together with the Descendents output, it forms one of the great American songbooks. The story is not complete without ALL: to my ears, the band's early work with Dave Smalley on vocals can come off a bit like a paler, blander Descendents, but once they brought Scott Reynolds on board around 1989, ALL become something truly distinct, equally as innovative as the band that spawned it. The emotions grew more mature and complex; the songs grew weirder and more outlandish; and the mix of songwriting personalities (at any given time, all four members of the group have contributed their own material) grew richer and more diverse. The arrival of the gorgeously grainy-voiced Chad Price on 1993's Breaking Things brought a more classic feel to the group; ALL began to sound more like a ferociously intense power-pop band than a group with hardcore roots. Later albums such as Mass Nerder and Problematic re-embraced "punk" aesthetics—shorter songs, speedier tempos—but combined them with hard-won, sometimes excruciatingly honest middle-age wisdom. The Descendents' output is timeless, magical, but it's only the first part of the story; you can't really understand these musicians' lifelong quest for what they call ALL—as I understand it, a quest for total honesty, total fun, total artistic incorruptibility, total friendship (basically, like, the precise reasons anyone should make any kind of art)—without, well, ALL.

Filmage asks us to consider this entire oeuvre as one thing, and for that—as well as for the fact that it's simply a very well-made and enjoyable chronicle of these incredible parallel careers, with the enigmatic and hugely endearing Bill Stevenson at the center—I salute everyone involved in the project. It deals with the whole Descendents vs. ALL question (and that rivalry is entirely a matter of audience reception, not a reflection of any internal dynamic) from every angle: We hear Milo discussing how frustrated he is that fans haven't embraced the ALL catalog with the fervor that they've greeted Descendents classics such as Milo Goes to College; we hear Dave Smalley talking about the impossible position he was thrust into, i.e., attempting to step into the shoes of a legendary frontman; we hear everyone from NOFX's Fat Mike to Descendents/ALL guitarist Stephen Egerton's own kids voicing their extreme preference for the Descendents over ALL; we hear Bill Stevenson not-defensively-but-maybe-a-little talking about how ALL's limited audience doesn't bother him in the slightest; and perhaps, most poignantly, we hear Scott Reynolds talking about attending a recent Descendents show and marveling at how the audience welcomed them as they would, say Van Halen. From a sympathetic insider perspective, he, Smalley and Price are such a key part of this story, but in the general view, they're mere footnotes.

So I thank Filmage for confronting this issue honestly, for unifying two hemispheres that never should've been separate in the first place. It all comes from one source, grows out of the brain and heart of this peculiar, ultra-driven genius Bill Stevenson. He did what we all dream of doing: visualizing our own personal ALL as an adolescent, realizing that vision and carrying it through our entire lives. This is a fountain-of-youth story, no question. You pick your passion, or it picks you, and you go all in with it, and it keeps you alive. Descendents persist, selling out enormous shows and headlining huge festivals; ALL persists, sometimes co-billing with Descendents or playing their own more modest headlining gigs. Everyone screams along to Descendents songs; a select group of ALL faithful screams along to ALL songs. It's not some sort of tragedy, this tale; it's just sort of, like, what happened. But, crucially, the reception didn't dictate the path; that is to say, ALL kept right on going, making incredible music, questing for ALL. The evidence is there, in the form of a meaty, wonder-filled discography; hopefully, Filmage sends us back in the direction we should always be headed, toward the music.

The ALL records I would recommend most highly are, in chronological order, Allroy's Revenge, Allroy Saves, Breaking Things and Mass Nerder. I treasure this music every bit as much as I treasure the Descendents' output. Here, off the top of my head, are ten of my favorite ALL songs:


Learn more about Filmage here. Here's the trailer: 

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