[11 July 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Watch the video for Ministry’s single “Revenge”, from their 1983 synthesizer-pop debut With Sympathy. Frontman/figurehead Al Jourgensen sneers into the camera, seething with anger at a treacherous lover. Jourgensen has long derided if not disowned this period in Ministry’s history as little more than a major label-dictated cash grab. Whether he’s right or not, here’s the thing. The seething anger Jourgensen mimes in “Revenge” comes across as more genuine, honest, and true than any aspect of the Jourgensen you see in Fixed, years later, when Jourgensen is ostensibly living and performing according to his own terms.
Fix was planned as a band-sanctioned documentary of the world tours of the mid-to-late ‘90s, shot by music video veteran Douglas Freel. As the Ministry juggernaut turned into a jalopy, the footage languished on the shelf until Freel finally secured the investments needed to release it. The 2012 incarnation of the film intercuts the tour footage with present-day interviews with former Ministry band members, associates, and fans, from Trent Reznor and Lemmy to Dave Navarro and Maynard James Keenan.
Fix is marketed as “The Ministry Movie”. If you’ve read up on it, though, you know it’s not. Fix is a film about Al Jourgensen; or, rather, a short period in Jourgensen’s life that even “Uncle Al” now admits he is not particularly proud of. And, if you think there is no difference between Al Jourgensen and Ministry, well, you’re wrong, at least where Fix is concerned.
Ministry means music, all of it, including those dubious eyeliner-laced early days. It means the abrupt turn into industrial music, Wax Trax! records, all those thrilling side projects, the creep of heavy metal guitars. It means Chicago, and later Texas, and more guitars which obliterated any last vestiges of the band’s inventiveness. And, finally, it means Jourgensen’s musical partners, from Steven George to Adrian Sherwood to the long-suffering Paul Barker.
You don’t get any of this in Fix. You get some snippets of concert footage, where Jourgensen delivers his heavily-processed vocals lazily, occasionally stomping around in his stovepipe hat, looking like a rock star as envisioned by Dr. Seuss. You get a few glimpses of Barker, but precious little interview footage with him. On the evidence, the man is simply far too “normal” for “The Ministry Movie”. And you get a lot, a lot of footage showing just how abnormal Al Jourgensen is.
Again, though, if you have paid attention to Jourgensen’s career or listened to his music, you know all of this. He’s smart, which you know from his manipulation of major record companies and his use of cutting-edge electronics to manipulate rock ‘n’ roll sounds. He’s funny, which you may have learned from his Revolting Cocks project, for example. He’s crass and embarrassingly childlike, as suggested by the name of the tour in question, Sphinctour. Yet he is also self-aware and witty; see The Dark Side of the Spoon, the album Ministry released just as things were falling apart. He’s an asshole. He’s charming. He’s an enigma, charmingly asinine. And, and here’s the message Freel wants to make sure you get, he’s on drugs.
Fix aims for Schadenfreude, but Ministry’s career for at least the last decade has basically been nothing but, and everyone knows how the story ends. The car crash loses its appeal if you’ve already read the post-mortem. Freel also tries to work the film as a broad cautionary tale about the perils of rock stardom, touring, and sycophantism. But this is nothing the entire history of rock’n'roll hasn’t already accomplished, and often with more grace. No, the wider angle seems more like an excuse for Freel to bring in people like Keenan and Navarro who, despite their eloquence, have little more than periphery connections to Jourgensen and his band.
What value there is in Fix, and it’s not negligible, is in its inherent juxtaposition. You have Jourgensen’s ex-colleagues and cohorts in the present day, cleaned up, older, wiser, and with perspective. The exception of Amen’s Casey Chaos only proves the rule. Then you have Al Jourgensen and Ministry circa 1996, impervious to his colleagues’ cautions because they haven’t been given yet, too doped up to care much about anything except dope.
The present-day interviews are insightful, and the contrast with the tour footage is striking and unfair by design. A 2012-model Jourgensen does show up on camera, looking bloated and making an unconvincing case for it all being an act. Would someone as sharp as Jourgensen in his prime really design an act in which his record sales nosedive and his name inspires more snickering and head-shaking than respect? Will the man who is responsible for some of the most groundbreaking, visceral, creative, irrevernt music of the 1980s please stand up? He is nowhere to be found in this film.
In spite of Freel and his film-in-search-of-a-tone, Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre, he of the processed Satan voice himself, has the most accurate, well-spoken perspective: “You have to make a choice. You’re faced with slow disentigration… or you choose to put that behind you. It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve opened that doorway, now it’s time to close it, I’ve taken all I can from this experience.’ The weaker ones are the ones who can’t step away from it.” Yes, Uncle Al, that means you.
The DVD edition of Fix comes with extra interview footage, which is worth watching, not least for Jello Biafra’s calling out Rob Zombie for pilfering Jourgensen’s persona and style. Also included is a companion album from Barker. Called Fix This and featuring Ogre among others, it shows that Barker had more than a hand in Ministry’s vintage sound. It is a valiant attempt to recapture that sound, and it is virtually unlistenable. It is also preferable to any of Ministry’s last several albums.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/160607-ministry-fix/