R.E.M.’s penultimate album began with a song called “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” and the director Joe Angio makes a similar argument on behalf of the long-running British group The Mekons with his new documentary Revenge of the Mekons. As much a portrait of the band in its current incarnation as a well-articulated history, the film’s prime directive is this: Consider the aging band. At a time when even The Sonics, who made their mark 50 years ago, have a new album in which they test themselves against the music of their late teens, Revenge looks at the ways a long-running band can subsidize its creative evolution through constantly re-imagining the aims of the collective, and through other, more common means. Most biographies, or at least those whose subjects have heroic dimensions, shy away from or romanticize ordinary life, but there’s a wonderful stretch here, early in the film, where a few Mekons talk about their day jobs, with Tom Greenhalgh delivering the punch line: “It’s a job that really should be done by robots.” He doesn’t elaborate.
Director: Joe Angio
Producers: Joe Angio, Jessica Wolfson
Cinematographer: Joe Angio
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Premiere: November 15, 2013 – DOC NYC
US Theatrical Release: October 29, 2014
US Distributor: Music Box Films
Angio largely lets the band tell its own story, and Revenge, simply because of its access to the group’s members, past and present, won’t likely be supplanted as the definitive documentary of The Mekons. Angio sometimes invites a critical perspective into the mix, in mostly helpful ways, though why anyone should care that author Jonathan Franzen views The Mekons as a mirror of his “embattled critical stance” is a mystery. The film organizes The Mekons’ first 20 years into four distinct phases, each one framed by the band standing in opposition to some larger force: punk, the U.S., etc. First there’s the band’s formation in Leeds from a group of radical students, a revolving door of amateur musicians alongside their more serious-minded foils in Gang of Four. Here Angio and the interviewees opt for a somewhat cliché formulation of the punk era, with lines that have been repeated so many times that no one can any longer confirm their accuracy: punk’s tearing down of the barrier between artists and audience, its emphasis on ideas and attitude over musicianship. More illuminating are the words of Mary Harron upon reviewing the band for Melody Maker in the late 70s. She appears in the film to read her writing, and to rep the importance of firsthand coverage of new sounds with a music-first emphasis. Her keenly observed original take begins: “The Mekons sound wildly experimental, but this is just a byproduct of confusion.”
From here, the film details the band’s unlikely survival via a series of redefinitions, first as they begin playing their famous mutation of American honky tonk music in the mid 80s, then as they stand on the precipice of mainstream success at the end of the decade, and finally, those hopes or fears dashed, as they broaden their mission until they’ve at last assumed the shape of an artists’ collective by the mid 90s. With each of these moments there’s a sense of The Mekons being rescued from their fate and allowed to endure. Angio doesn’t identify or diagnose the band’s phases, their chief oppositions, after the 90s, so the footage of their 2011 touring and recording, showing a relaxed and familial atmosphere and a healthy, inexhaustible creative process, presumably represents their last and longest chapter, made possible by the triumphs and disappointments that preceded it. But even with some of the film’s elisions, with whole eras shoehorned into the final 20 minutes, Angio never loses track of a clear and compelling narrative thread, and brings to the material a strong sense of the shape and meaning of The Mekons’ history, no small task for a band whose longevity alone makes them a daunting subject.
But with such strong command of the material, Angio also betrays anti-commercial instincts that aren’t surprising for a Mekons admirer but that could be interrogated more thoroughly. The writer Luc Sante appears early in the film to declare that “transforming yourself into a commodity is never the way to go,” but of course any band must commodify itself to a certain extent, and the details of this one’s initial signing with a major label are left a bit fuzzy. What did they hope to achieve? Could The Mekons have been The Mekons in a more hospitable major label environment, not the toxic one in which they found themselves? Certainly the music, by this time, had commercial potential. One former member, speaking of the band’s early days, mentions their malformed pop instincts, identifying moments in their early songs that are like a “photocopy of a bit of pop,” the band clueless as to how to construct the rest of the song from there. Angio’s primary interest is in the way the band’s punk ideals have carried them into their fourth decade, but there could be equal merit in telling this same story from a pop angle, with an emphasis on songcraft, packaging, and the enhancement of that first photocopy. By the time of 1989’s “I Am Crazy,” the band had to their name a pop song of such transport and longing, from such a low, low place (“my singing even makes the stones cry,” Sally Timms confirms with her voice; consider it the song of Ironweed’s Helen), that all subsequent pop has been a photocopy, in my mind.
Timms could be at the center of this kind of approach to the band’s career, as could Tom Greenhalgh, the group’s other dreamiest vocalist, a failed, miserable superstar, but a superstar nonetheless, every time he sings. As it is, resident firebrand Jon Langford takes up a great deal of the attention in the film and elsewhere, despite everyone’s best efforts to define and maintain The Mekons as a collective with no chosen leader. But Langford is the “force of nature” without whom the group would likely not continue, and his energy and charisma are inevitable facts and can’t help but make him the Joe Strummer of the group, and a musical industry unto himself outside of the group. Not downplaying Langford’s importance but also respectful of the group’s identity and process, in which “no one person can have an idea,” Revenge of the Mekons suggests that the band long ago solved all the minor hindrances that might threaten their vitality. That continues to be the case, barring any drastic new developments, but the film has at times some of the rhythms and energy of a documentary tasked with laying an institution to rest. Like Life Itself, a comprehensive survey of the life of Roger Ebert made essential by its intimate depiction of his final year, Revenge intermixes history, at times so familiar that remembrance and narration have likely hardened it, with more candid recent scenes. For the initiated these scenes are the keepers, but far from the only selling point of this unusually cogent rock ‘n’ roll story.