d. Jem Cohen / USA / 1999 / 115 mins
Viewed at: The Curve @ The Forum (Norwich, UK)
Apart from the shorts screenings for Milena Gierke and Jem Cohen, the only other session I managed to catch at the brilliant Aurora Festival was a one-off screening of Instrument, Cohen’s excellent feature-length documentary portrait of Washington D.C.’s finest DIY punk rockers, Fugazi. And considering they are my favourite band – and Cohen is among my favourite filmmakers – it’s probably no surprise that you’d have trouble using your hands to count the number of times I’ve seen Instrument.
Listening to Fugazi’s Red Medicine album before the screening made me realise that, as much as I love Fugazi proper (and I do!), I have a real soft spot for their more experimental interludes, even if I am in the minority. The soundtrack for Instrument is absolutely littered with these little audio oddities and curious outtakes. And although this is largely because most of the early Fugazi footage shot by Cohen was either on silent film stock or was simply of poor sound quality, they do really add an extra sonic dimension when inserted between more traditional live performance footage, helping to propel the film well past the yawnfest of most music documentaries.
In his introduction for this screening, Jem Cohen commented that Instrument is:
A film about the band, but also about time, and about the American landscape. And when I say ‘the American landscape’, I mean the physical landscape, but I’m also talking about American society.
As with all of Cohen’s films – and, indeed, Fugazi’s music – it is a landscape that is personal and political all at once, flooded with commercialism yet tinged with individuals who actively shun corporate America.
In this sense, Instrument also exists as a vehicle for exploding prevailing myths about Fugazi: that they nothing but a ‘serious’ bunch of guys, that money never figures in their ‘utopian’ DIY world and that they all live in a giant shared squat with no heating. They are attitudes that clearly irk the band and, I’m sure, wer the inspiration for the refrain in Fell, Destroyed, a track from Red Medicine:
Yes I have a sense of humour.
Don’t you sense my sense of humour?
Of course, the footage of the band goofing around in the studio – and of Ian counting money after gigs – is seriously at odds with the image many still hold of Fugazi as an overly serious, anti-capitalist bunch of party-poopers. It is an image that grew, less from how they were as individuals, than from their desire to promote causes, play benefit gigs and discuss politics. It is also, of course, an image constructed by outsiders, and not by the band themselves. After all, as one ‘fan’ says in the film:
They don’t even, like, let you dance. And they’re meant to be, like, you know, a hardcore band.
But regardless of whatever Fugazi are, like, supposed to be (or whatever), Instrument really is a perfect accompaniment to the band: refusing to be labeled, pinned-down or conform to any conventional expectations about what a music documentary – or a rock band – should be or how it should conduct itself.
And yet, from another perspective, it also feels like one of Cohen’s most compromised works. The constant tension between showing a performance in its entirety and cutting it short (thus alienating some segments of the audience), is matched only by the restrictions it places upon Cohen’s ability to fully explore the kind of free association that consistently recurs throughout his best work.
But this is only a minor criticism, and Instrument remains – for me at least – as close to perfection as a music documentary can get. It has those classic moments that reveal little truths about the band (and its fans) in unexpected ways, but it also allows room for the music – and, by extension, the performances of Ian, Guy, Joe and Brendan – to speak of and for itself.