The post-punk era of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s was home to no shortage of British bands that started out playing some variety of blaring, DIY three chord punk-rock, then got a little more experimental and innovative, and finally shifted into a pop gear that landed them on the mainstream charts. That’s one of the reasons documentaries detailing that time period are absolutely fascinating: seeing footage of bands in their artsy and sincere incipient stages, before they hit arenas of screaming teenage fans, is for music nerds tantamount to unearthing a Dead Sea Scroll. You’d think that Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out would be brimming with all sorts of telling details about where The Police fit in the New Wave cultural milieu. After all, how often does one get the perspective of a band’s meteoric rise to mainstream fame in the first person, through the camera lens of the drummer, who happened to spend the majority of the early-‘80s perpetually wielding a Super 8?
Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out is comprised of footage shot by lone American member of The Police Stewart Copeland as the band began touring and broke big. Unfortunately, though the movie is brimming with beautifully grainy, never-before-seen footage of the towheaded trio performing and clowning around, Copeland’s desultory narration doesn’t weave a very satisfying story. The film was initially cut together by Copeland as a labor of love, a collection of home movies edited in mostly chronological order and geared towards friends of the band, and it shows. Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out is more effective as a nostalgia trip for people intimately involved in the early days of The Police than as a telling work of cultural history.
After all, there’s a near-mythical body of history surrounding The Police. For one, the conventional lore tells us that they were constantly getting into fist-fights with each other. They were no strangers to the accusation that they began their ascendancy to the heights of the New Wave / mainstream crossover phenomenon as “part-time punks”. Their drummer doubled as the enigmatic prankster known as Klark Kent. Their front-man, before becoming a purveyor of adult contemporary schlock, was apocryphally dressed down by Elvis Costello for singing in a “ridiculous Jamaican accent”. Where you’d expect Copeland to get the audience up to speed on the real story back in those days, whatever secrets it might have entailed, he motors by it in his characteristically sonorous tone. He only circuitously references the fact that he, for instance, drummed for a prog-rock band before punk hit the UK, or that Sting found the ‘76 punk scene a little vulgar for his taste. Hell, you never even get a clear picture, in the film, of how Copeland ended up in England in the first place. With Copeland so close to the material, too much of the really interesting stuff seems to be taken for granted.
Only in the director’s commentary (provided by Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers) is it pointed out that the fellow standing in front of the camera for a split second is Fred Schneider or that a band performing at one point is the English Beat. These sorts of details and the stories that accompany them make the director’s commentary almost more valuable than the original cut of the film itself—the special features provide the kind of commentary on the footage you’d expect from a movie compiled, cut, and narrated by the band’s drummer.
On top of the more in-depth narration of the director’s commentary, the DVD special features offer extra footage that probably should have made it into the final cut. Scenes of Stewart Copeland’s brother Miles in the studio vocally mugging along to “Every Breath You Take”, Sting jokingly attributing their UK Chart placement to Gary Numan not “fucking off”, and a cameo by Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland are the kind of telling cultural moments you’d hope to see more of. The “Shards” selection features crucial live bootleg footage less oddly chopped up than that found in the feature presentation, including a supremely dub-infected version of “Roxanne”.
There is something to be said, though, for Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, in terms of what made it to the mise en scene of Copeland’s perpetually probing lens. Rarely do you find an over-the-shoulder shot of a drummer performing anywhere, but thanks to Copeland’s camera-friendly narcissism, they’re plentiful—giving you a new appreciation for Copeland’s tightly wound drumming, which while it doesn’t necessarily come across on recordings, finds him looking as though he’s hammering away in bursts of supremely focused frustration (though he opines in the DVD commentary that his uber-serious drum faces were coincidental, not reflective of his mood). If there was any doubt about the band’s energy, they appear to be all but inexhaustible throughout the film, shredding through tracks like “Next To You” at a pace that absolutely buries the recorded version.
Antiquated home-filming technology lends a certain texture to the film that wouldn’t have been there had Copeland been able to document his days as a Police-man in digital. In a scene showing the birth of “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, with Sting teaching the guitar part to Summers, the batteries of Copeland’s Super 8 begin to run out, the audio gets wobbly, and this historical moment unintentionally takes on a spookily romantic air. Copeland’s camera-fuckery generally lends an amateur avant-garde quality to the film; routine abuse of the time-lapse feature makes many shots from hotel windows look like they were cribbed from Koyaanisqatsi.
This left-field comparison might extend even more deeply when looking at Copeland’s editing choices, which are idiosyncratic, to say the least. Live performances cut off and into other performances for no apparent reason and scenes are organized more by train-of-thought than by strict chronology. With that, Copeland may capture a certain truth about a band at that level of success touring that a straightforward documentary would miss: the ebbs and flows of life on the road, the speedups and slowdowns of hectic concerts set against a backdrop of long, boring train and plane rides. If Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out is intended to be a meditative snapshot of The Police and not a historical record, it at least explains why the film ends so arbitrarily, only hinting at creative and personal tensions between band mates, and with the film’s last live performance occurring long before the actual dissolution of the band.
As for exploring those mythical days when experimentalist post-punk underground first started to yield radio-pop nuggets, Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out doesn’t do for the The Police what Made in Sheffield did for The Human League and Heaven 17—the Gnostic gospels of Sting and The Gang, it ain’t. Rather, it’s a uniquely personal, if not surrealistic look at the rock-and-roll lifestyle of a touring band, one that might be almost a bit too unique and a bit too personal for any but the most dedicated fans who need to have that footage now that it’s available. Cultural historians and lovers of music would probably be better served tracking down a copy of Urgh! A Music War and watching The Police perform one full song alongside a jaw dropping lineup of other bands from that era. That being said, word has it that Andy Summers is coming out with a memoir in the near future, so if the band really was masterminding their way to the top of the mainstream from the very beginning, maybe these two former Police have some horizontal marketing in mind.