The class of 1998

Nov 8, 2006 at 12:00 am

When It Came from Detroit premiered on a recent Friday evening, the Detroit Film Theatre was filled with a sold-out crowd of scene people, DFT regulars and various local musicians. The brainchild of filmmakers James P. Petix and Sarah Babila, the film is one of the first official attempts to chronicle the modern garage rock movement, a scene that helped move the Motor City off the "Murder City" joke list and into the mainstream. Their doc looks back at the hometown-spawned musical surge that manhandled the UK, altered the trajectory of pop music, and ultimately found its way back home. The movie digs into an era that at its zenith birthed the White Stripes — a band that will someday be considered one of the most influential acts in rock 'n' roll history. It also successfully conjures the not-so-old memories of the days when a cross-section of fabulous young people — who for an ephemeral few moments in time — created something that was completely their own.

To the people who made the music, the handful of original fans, the promoters, the bartenders and even the haters, It Came From Detroit is little more than a video yearbook. And though the interviews are at times hilarious and are mostly of the people who were involved (the White Stripes are notably absent), it would likely make more of an impact if it were less of a hat-tip to the folks who participated in the documentary itself and more of an intellectual look at the meaning behind it all.

What's shaky about the film is its central thesis — it rarely transcends the confines of a scene that was incredibly insular to begin with. Insider interviews, firsthand accounts, live footage and a killer soundtrack take the viewer on a chronological journey from the late 1980s to today, and it's a rare peek behind the curtain. But there's no central narration, and it's short on analysis, favoring instead a litany of anecdotal observations. While the film was undoubtedly the product of hard work, tireless planning and a genuine curiosity about the garage rock scene, something important is missing.

Surprisingly, some interviewees have even expressed surprise that their more controversial comments were left on the cutting-room floor, which is a shame, because Petix and Babila deserve to see this project get off of the ground. But in order for it to be meaningful outside of the microcosm from whence it came, the movie needs to be contextualized in a much broader way — and not just for the folks who have a genuine interest in the whole story, but for the people who were really there.

There is some meditation and reflection from musicians like Tom Potter of Detroit City Council, whose unapologetic wink-nudge glibness is delightful, not to mention among the most honest. And Fortune & Maltese dude Freddy Fortune's encyclopedic knowledge and sober attitude skip the pomp and go straight for the facts. The ever-witty Matt Smith of Outrageous Cherry is one of the few people whose philosophical thoughts on the goings-on actually make it into the movie.

And while the film does address topics like the historical importance of main players such as Mick Collins and Danny Kroha, the Sub Pop record deal tribulations of the Go, the too-short existence of Rocket 455, Jack White's pummeling of Jason Stollsteimer, and the meteoric rise of the Stripes — several opportunities to penetrate why any of it matters aren't pursued. Observations on the fallout are thin, and maybe even a little misleading. Which prompts the question: Why bother recounting an era if you aren't going to do it with even-handed scrutiny, brutal candor and heartfelt contemplation?

Ultimately It Came from Detroit just feels too safe.

To be fair, it's probably too soon to get a real read on everything that went down. Many of the people interviewed for the doc — in fact, most of them — are still making music and touring the world. Petix has been quoted as saying that he purposely avoided gossip, and that's a beautiful thing. But just as eschewing slander is the honorable thing to do, so is capturing the whole story. Where's the marrow? Where are the tough, uncomfortable questions? Anyone who was there knows that lives were forever changed, loyalties were tested, drug and alcohol addictions were facilitated and big fat greasy lessons in humility were handed out to more than a few. At the minimum, there's a cautionary tale or two to be shared, not to mention some sage advice. That's not superficiality — it's germane to the story. If the meaning behind those years gets glazed over, then it's just a fairytale penned by the characters themselves. Nothing's ever that simple, and, quite frankly, some of the most outstanding beauty comes from our flaws. This is Detroit, after all.

It was a stroke of genius for Petix to start filming It Came from Detroit when he did, and regardless of how the final cut turns out, he and Babila have captured on film something more than worth its props. And that's all the more reason why it should be more sharply focused.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]