In Music

Bad Brains' flame-throwing music marked them as America's landmark punk band.

Bad Brains film captures the conflict that fueled the musical fire

It's clear from the start of "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.," that the Bad Brains have issues. All these years on, the energy, the power endures, but so does the conflict.

Barely a minute into the film, directed by Ben Logan and Mandy Stein, is a scene shot backstage during the band's 2007 tour – its first in more than a decade. Singer H.R. (Paul Hudson) sits smirking on a couch, while bassist Darryl Jenifer speaks...

"Good luck with your life ... don't be calling my house," he tells his long-time bandmate. "I see you coming to sabotage sh*t. You're a sell-out and I hope I never have to see your ass again."

The film screens as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival as part of its Sound Vision series of music films. You can see it Saturday, Sept. 29 at 6:45 p.m. at the Oriental, Sunday, Sept. 30 at 9 at the same theater, and Monday, Oct. 1 at 5 p.m. at the Fox-Bay.

It's always been a little ironic that the band that pushed the idea of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), was riddled with this kind of drama. But maybe that conflict has also been key to the fire in the belly of this rare all-black punk band that sometimes created conflicts with audiences back in the day, too, with a mix of punk and straight-up roots reggae that could flummox a crowd.

The documentary uses interviews with band members and American hardcore legends like Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins – from the band's early D.C. days – and Beastie Boys Adam Yauch and Michael Diamond, who played often with the band once it relocated to New York at the start of the 1980s. Managers and other related folks appear, too.

"They were light years ahead of anyone playing on the local scene," says Denise Mercedes of New York hardcore band The Stimulators. "They were skilled, there were original, they were monster music."

The Bad Brains set the American punk scene aflame and had gone national, morphing into an almost metal band and by the dawn of the '90s there was a rift. But soon after, the original group reunited and has been working on and off ever since.

The internal issues, especially between H.R. – who has a knack for refusing to perform at times – and the rest of the band, underpin the whole film. At one point, Minor Threat's Mackaye says, "this band is insane," and Jenifer responds, "No, this band is not insane. The lead singer is insane."

And the film does include some really bizarre scenes, like HR strapping on a bullet-proof vest before going onstage, and, later, HR telling a group of young fans that Charlton Heston's daughter assured him that Paris Hilton will keep up the good work.

But some also suggest that HR verges on genius. For example, Living Colour's Vernon Reid calls him, "one of a kind, he is of a kind like Thelonious Monk. There is something so implacably original, that he is that thing."

Fans of the band and of American hardcore will eat up every second of "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.," with its vintage footage. Sure, there are depressing moments – and a really poignantly sad bit near the end when, after their backstage blowup, Jenifer and HR exchange subtle glances outside the venue – but seeing the old hardcore scene on the screen is inspiring and despite what went on behind the music, the songs are still as inflammable as ever.

Though the Bad Brains story is a compelling one, it for the most part comprises the same kind of conflict, struggle and drama – as well as the same jubilant, music-fueled highs – that follows most long-lived bands built around strong personalities and high-tensile music, and that may make the film a bit less engaging for some of the general public.

Other films in the Sound Vision series include, with Milwaukee Film's descriptions ...

"An Affair of the Heart"
(USA, 2012, 94 minutes)
Friday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m., Downer Theatre
Saturday, Sept. 29, 5:45 p.m., Fox-Bay Cinema

Aussie heartthrob Rick Springfield appears to be a hypnotist. He's entranced thousands of fans since 1981, when he released his hit song "Jessie's Girl" and joined the cast of General Hospital. In this wildly entertaining documentary, we get to tag along with his diverse and devoted groupies as they storm his concerts, flood his cruises, and swarm to his book signings to bask in his presence and pour out their hearts.

"Andrew Bird: Fever Year"
(USA, 2011, 80 minutes)
Saturday, Sept. 29, 9:45 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Sunday, Sept. 30, 3 p.m., Oriental Theatre

Andrew Bird's fans often sweat and shiver during his stunning violin solos. Bird also exhibited these symptoms during the 165-show tour he launched in 2009. Instead of admitting he was sick, he insisted he was morphing into an "animal perfectly adapted to the music hall." Kartemquin Film's Xan Aranda captures Bird's sometimes-peculiar perspective in intimate documentary segments and showcases his inventive, multi-instrumental looping technique with concert footage from The Pabst Theater.

"Charles Bradley: Soul of America"
(USA, 2012, 75 minutes)
Thursday, Oct. 4, 5 p.m., Downer Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 6, 9:15 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Sunday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m., Downer Theatre
Thursday, Oct. 11, 6 p.m., Fox-Bay Cinema

By age 62, most Americans are contemplating retirement. For Charles Bradley, this age marked the takeoff of a career he started long ago, with the lauded release of his debut album, No Time for Dreaming. Director Poull Brien glimpses into the boxes that have confined this genial musician, which range from homelessness to illiteracy and constant poverty, and reveals the extraordinary journey of a man who never gave up.

"Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey"
(USA, 2012, 113 minutes)
Sunday, Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Monday, Oct. 1, 6:45 p.m., Oriental Theatre

While searching for a new singer, iconic rock band Journey stumbles across a YouTube video of a Journey cover band in the Philippines. Guitarist Neal Schon is stunned at the vocal similarity of their lead singer, Arnel Pineda, to Journey's legendary former lead singer Steve Perry. And so begins the rags-to-riches whirlwind journey of Pineda, told to us through candid interviews and rockin' concert footage that'll have you singing along.

"Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigridur Nielsdottir"
(Iceland/Denmark, 2011, 62 minutes)
Tuesday, Oct. 9, 7:45 p.m., Fox-Bay Cinema
Thursday, Oct. 11, 5:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre

Step inside the creative world of Icelandic cult hero Sigríður Níelsdóttir, who at the ripe old age of 70 finally decided she couldn't keep the music inside any longer and released 59 albums over the course of seven years. This delightful doc shows the DIY aesthetic that Níelsdóttir's work is infused with, and one can't help but be inspired to create when faced with her charming anything-goes methods.

"I Want My Name Back"
(USA, 2011, 94 minutes)
Friday, Sept. 28, 9:45 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Monday, Oct. 1, 9:15 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Tuesday, Oct. 2, 4:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre

The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 mega-hit "Rapper's Delight" drew hip-hop into the mainstream with a catchy incantation: "I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop." As thousands of fans shouted these words, the trio's money, name, and fame quietly drained into their managers' pockets. In this documentary, Roger Paradiso follows two founding members as they work to reclaim their identities as hip-hop pioneers.

"Mama Africa"
(Finland/South Africa/Germany, 2011, 90 minutes)
Tuesday, Oct. 2, 5 p.m., Downer Theatre
Sunday, Oct. 7, 5:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre
Tuesday, Oct. 9, 5:30 p.m., Fox-Bay Cinema

Miriam Makeba wasn't just a Grammy-winning singer. She was a real-life angel who used her voice to fight Apartheid. After her native South Africa revoked her citizenship, she launched a music career in America, only to lose it by wedding Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. Director Mika Kaurismäki combines archival footage from Makeba's personal life, interviews with friends and family, and clips from her historic Cape Town
concerts to celebrate her legacy.

Tickets are available here.



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