Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The potentially true story of the last best band" is what to expect from Gorman Bechard's Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements. The tagline alone kind of makes me wistful for the liner notes to the band's first album, which, like the aforementioned quoted tagline, is a mix of honesty and self-effacement.

I was driven to see this when Zia Records sponsored a screening as part of the Phoenix Film Festival's "Doc-tober Fest" on First Friday of October 2011. And much of this impulse was due to my own intimate familiarity with the music of The Replacements (aka The Placemats), who had been my favorite band during my high school years, starting in 2001. I had moved out of Mesa and into Apache Junction to be with my grandmother, as living with my father had started to escalate into a potential runaway situation. I left behind my friends, my big sister and a massive VHS collection of hundreds of movies, which would all be confiscated and officially lost to me due to further carelessness on behalf of my dad. My identity in regards to social, family and film connection all took a massive hit, and even pursuing my interests in drama and (for a spell) playing guitar, I spent much of my time in A.J. asking myself, "What the hell am I doing here?"

A mindset like that as well as a big catalog of mail-ordered CDs ultimately led me to discover The Replacements, and the first Replacements album I acquired was All For Nothing/Nothing For All, a double-disc breakdown of the years when the band themselves transitioned from homegrown cult darlings to major-label rockers. The Sire Records era from 1985 to 1990 produced four albums that told of a different evolutionary path than that of when they were signed to indie label Twin/Tone in their native Minneapolis. The band was originally composed of brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson (on guitar and bass, respectively) and drummer Chris Mars. This was when they called themselves Dogbreath. It took the repeated arrivals of a janitor named Paul Westerberg to complete the line-up that would be immortalized on stage and in studio.

Their first full-length album (1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash) and subsequent EP (Stink) thrashed against the restless, reckless experiences of youth. "Shiftless When Idle," "Fuck School" and "Takin' a Ride" (as in vehicular shenanigans not unlike "[takin'] a little ride in a hearse") were some of the more bracing highlights. Most American hardcore acts had political commentary (Dead Kennedys) or gritty slices of defiance and desperation (X, Black Flag). The Replacements were more concerned with what you're supposed to say when you've fallen hopelessly in love with the girl behind the counter (from "Customer": "Can I get change?/Where are the Twinkies?/What's on sale?"). Much of their appeal stemmed from these seriocomic blasts of angst and antsiness, as well as their live performances, fueled by beer, random cover songs and wavering levels of competency.

1983's Hootenanny and the next year's Let It Be saw The Replacements breaking away from punk rock's constraints and showed off Westerberg's increasing prowess with lyrics and composition. The latter remains one of the seminal LPs of the 1980s alternative scene, with the invigorating rockabilly of "I Will Dare," jokey rave-ups about tonsillectomies and erections, the grueling personal outrage with feeling "Unsatisfied" and saying intimate things to an "Answering Machine," and the empathetic classics "Androgynous" and "Sixteen Blue." Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau awarded it a rare A+ when it was released, leading to a full-fledged profile of the group in the publication.

The first exposure I got, though, were cherry-picked selections from the Sire Records releases Tim (1985), Pleased to Meet Me (1987), Don't Tell a Soul (1989), and All Shook Down (1990). Multiple shake-ups within the band (including the firing of Bob Stinson, who died of drug-related casualties in 1995), several stalled attempts at commercial success and Westerberg's prevalent personality all led to the dissolution of the group in 1991. However, since I didn't catch up with the independent Replacements era until a little bit later, this gave me enough time to develop fond recollections of the songs I heard on All for Nothing: the soulful, straight-ahead rockers with iconic titles such as "Can't Hardly Wait," "Left of the Dial," "Bastards of Young" and "Alex Chilton"; the heart-on-sleeve odes to wasting your life in the bar ("Here Comes a Regular"), yearning for affection ("Skyway," "Achin' to Be") and bemoaning lost love at the moment of your old flame's matrimony ("Nobody").

But I was only seven years old by the time The Replacements wrapped up their stint, so my associations are primarily with the music more than the antics. Everything I heard about the band afterwards sounded like myth, and who needs to look back when you've got a copy of Let It Be or Paul Westerberg's solo Stereo/Mono in your Walkman. Still, I was intrigued by the way the Replacements played around with the dog-and-pony show of being in the music business, sneaking unsuspected AM radio covers on paying crowds in a boozy haze, making a music video where a gigantic speaker is the focus of attention and appearing in gawky, rambunctious form on both Saturday Night Live, where they indulged in some Keith Moon-style destruction in the green room that got them on the show's official blacklist along with the likes of Elvis Costello, Fear and Sinead O'Connor, and the International Rock Awards(?).

The censored line, for the record, is "We're feelin' good from the pills we took," so the change of lyric at the end is a more deliberate "fuck you" statement worthy of what kept Costello, Fear and O'Connor off of SNL permanently. But Westerberg's introductory "What the hell are we doing here?" ultimately brings me full circle to my initial identification with The Replacements, and the reason I had to be there for the one-time screening of Color Me Obsessed.


Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements is an anecdotal survey of "the last best band," stripped completely of archaeology in regards to the use of actual footage or music from the band proper. Gorman Bechard, director of the adolescent video shelf fixture Psychos in Love, understands how mythological the band's underground cult status appears in hindsight, and thus conducts his documentary like a two-hour gospel filled with fervent testimony and opinion that reflects the full-fledged fandom of the interview participants.

The Replacements embodied a self-destructive dichotomy which worked mischievous wonders during their early years as pigeonholed punks but ultimately kept them from becoming the household name that many felt they deserved. Their first gig at famed New York City club CBGB's in 1983 resulted in derisive boos from classicist misfits when a test pressing of Hootenanny cued up and the titular ramshackle country goof that opened the album blared into the crowd. Playing Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, the same year, the local mohawk contingent (which included future indie troubador Jesse Malin) heckled away at the band so insistently that Paul Westerberg stayed at the end of the set to play drums for 30 minutes so that the punks could try their luck covering that ol' reliable "Louie Louie." But such a reckless attitude during their final years garnering MTV attention and touring with Tom Petty (who, of course, nicked the "rebel without a clue" lyric from the 'Mats' sole Hot 100 single, "I'll Be You") returned them to word-of-mouth obscurity.

20 years after their final show was bootlegged as "It Ain't Over Til the Fat Roadie Plays," The Replacements have been given the rock doc treatment thanks primarily to the funds raised on Color Me Obsessed gathers peers, producers, journalists, roadies, and recording artists from as far back as their garage-bound beginnings and as recent as members of Titus Andronicus and The Hold Steady. The notion that a band could embody someone's life experiences, captured on record by The Minutemen and preserved on pages by Michael Azerrad, is given room to flourish thanks to the array of commentary and war stories here. And die-hard fans should get a kick out of hearing the direct inspiration for both the tortured "Answering Machine" ("the Apocalypse Now of vocal performances" per musician Matthew Ryan) and the namesake of the band's Tommy Ramone-produced 1985 Sire debut, Tim.

The band's legendarily inconsistent live shows are the one aspect that really could've benefitted from genuine evidence, but the detailed, intimate storytelling brings imaginative light to several well-preserved memories. Actor Jeff Corbett remembers a basement gig that began late and regressed into a drunken argument which "ended like a Mike Tyson fight." There's another sadly hilarious recollection of a Trenton gig in 1985 that saw Bob Stinson preempting one show to "finish" a pinball game, trying to jump onstage to join his bandmates but getting kicked back down. The band's propensity for copious amounts of cover songs (they would play a bar of "Help Me, Rhonda" repeatedly in a fix) and guitarist Bob Stinson's wild costume choices (likening him to a "drunken art project") are also the source of good humor.

Spotlighting each of the individual members and albums in between the more eloquent stories, the documentary does get away with a few amusing touches to perk up the dominant focus on interviews. When the hand-stamped copies of the Stink EP are revealed as having been fashioned with a potato, there's an instructional video recreating the practice. In making a case for the band's underdog status in the rock pantheon, passages of text inform you of how many units each of the albums sold in both their initial and Rhino reissued formats, although they always ended up getting outsold by the millions in comparison to REO Speedwagon, Asia or Prince.

Color Me Obsessed progresses chronologically in regards to the band's history, from their Dogbreath/The Impediments origins to their extended goodbye touring throughout the late 1990s. That the nearly two-hour program feels so brisk is a testament to the captivating detail of many of the better comments and the scope of the compiled input. If I had to pick the moment that best sums up the spirit of Bechard's film, it's a brutally personal account of Minneapolis author Robert Voedisch stumbling upon a profile of the Replacements in Creem Magazine as a teenage loner insulated in farm life. His geometry teacher was also a 'Mats fan, and created a tape that had Hootenanny on one side and Let It Be on the other, albeit with one notable omission. Aside from having his musical identity challenged, young Rob eventually developed in his mind a fraternal relationship to Tommy Stinson to develop his self-confidence. Funny thing was that I felt a sort of kinship to Voedisch based on my own "Sixteen Blue" discovery of the Replacements.

The poignant, passionate confessions of Voedisch and many others are what ultimately makes this stand out from your typical clip-heavy rock documentary. With Color Me Obsessed, Bechard tells you all about the impact of The Replacements from the mouths of the true believers, which is a charming, classical manner of exposure. Those who haven't heard a single lick of the group's music would do wise to look to any fan at the screening for guidance into how to create the ultimate Replacements mix tape or CD. Although you can't go wrong with Let It Be, allow me to share with you the actual track listing for my own official Replacements sampler:

1. Talent Show (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
2. I Will Dare (from Let It Be, 1984)
3. Alex Chilton (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
4. Left of the Dial (from Tim, 1985)
5. Takin' a Ride (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
6. Kiss Me on the Bus (from Tim, 1985)
7. Color Me Impressed (from Hootenanny, 1983)
8. Favorite Thing (from Let It Be, 1984)
9. Androgynous (from Let It Be, 1984)
10. I'll Be You (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
11. Never Mind (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
12. Within Your Reach
13. Bastards of Young (from Tim, 1985)
14. Shiftless When Idle (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
15. Skyway (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
16. Achin' to Be (from Don't Tell a Soul, 1989)
17. Unsatisfied (from Let It Be, 1984)
18. Customer (from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, 1981)
19. Date to Church (1989 B-side of "I'll Be You," from the Don't Tell a Soul reissue, 2008)
20. Merry Go Round (from All Shook Down, 1991)
21. Kids Don't Follow (from the Stink EP, 1982)
22. If Only You Were Lonely (1981 B-side of "I'm in Trouble," from the Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash reissue, 2008)
23. Can't Hardly Wait (from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
24. Here Comes a Regular (from Tim, 1985)
25. Answering Machine (from Let It Be, 1984)