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IFFBoston 2011: Rock On!

The next few nights screened a number of documentaries about musicians and the impact of their music.  Scheduling conflicts meant you couldn’t see all of them, so I chose the three below.

Color Me Obsessed is the rarest of rockumentaries in that it doesn’t play a single note of music from the band being featured, Minnesota’s own, The Replacements.  Somehow, for this iconoclastic group, it fits.  Instead, the band’s history and antics are revealed through interviews laced with humorous anecdotes and cherished remembrances shared by fans and friends.  

Even when compared to the free-spirited behavior of other musical artists, The Replacements were known for going their own way.  Whether taking their nickname from a published gig ad misprint, naming an album after a singer who passed out at the mike during a show (his band finished the set), being banned from Saturday Night Live for playing drunk and destroying their dressing room, or breaking out into arguments on stage, they were anything but predictable. They were also anything but commercially successful, as shown by tallies of Replacements’ annual record sales figures (or lack thereof) juxtaposed with the top selling album of that year, interspersed throughout the film.  

However limited their exposure, this band was extremely influential across a wide swath of entertainment, from musical groups Green Day, Guns n Roses and Indigo Girls to the movie Heathers, the comedians of The Kids in the Hall and the video game Rock Band 2.  For a legendary group that few actually saw or heard, what better way to tell their story than without their performance?  There is now a small part of me that wishes my family hadn’t moved from Minneapolis when I was a child so that I could have seen these guys live in my formative years.

While Color Me Obsessed has a kind of endearing lightness like an inside joke among old friends, Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story strikes a tone deep and low that resonates in your core, like the signature sound of Sandman’s trio, Morphine.  The “low rock” richness of Morphine came, in large part, from their unique instrumentation – primarily a two-string slide bass, a selected sax (or two), and drums.  The mournful melancholy of the film comes from the knowledge that, as we see Morphine’s decade-long run, we know that it ends with Sandman’s death, on stage in Italy, in 1999.  

The film chronicles the artistry of the local indie favorites.  Early on, in order to force creativity, they chose to limit themselves with the rule that for any gig each musician must carry all of their own gear solo in one trip.  Sandman would create his own instruments.  Saxophonist Dana Colley would play any of four different ranges of sax: soprano, tenor, baritone and even bass – sometimes two at a time.  For health reasons, the trio used two different drummers, but for what turned out to be the last album and tour, both percussionists played in a Morphine quartet.  

Just before his death, Sandman had found a level of personal contentment that had seemed out of reach, which makes his death all the more tragic.  In its final act, the film follows the band back to Palestrina, outside Rome, to play at the same festival, on the stage where Sandman died, on the tenth anniversary of his passing. It is a touching tribute, not only by the band, but also by the town that shared the experience with them.

Last Days Here (Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Feature) follows the recent years in the turbulent life of metal rocker Bobby Liebling - best known, to those that know him at all, as the vocalist for Pentagram, a metal band that dates back to the early 1970s.  When we meet him, Bobby is a 50-something drug addict living in his parents’ basement.  His habit is so bad that his forearms are covered in scar tissue from years of picking “parasites” out of his skin.  From his perspective, if he encounters anything bad for his heart, he’ll do it: love, drugs, bacon…

Yet meet him we do, because others - including the filmmakers and friend/manager Sean “Pellet” Pelletier - have discovered him through his music and seen through to the man inside all that turmoil to become fans not only of Pentagram, but of Bobby himself.  Because of his devotion to Bobby and his music, Last Days Here is not only Bobby’s journey, but Pellet’s.

Over the span of years that we take the journey with them, Bobby’s life hits the highest highs and lowest lows, sometimes at the same time, as overdosing himself to death is a constant threat.  Along the way Bobby, his fans, and Pellet each encounter their own kinds of love, loss and redemption.  What would otherwise be the sad story of a sad man can still capture a moment of triumph that we should all be so lucky to have.

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