[22 May 2003]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Many years ago in a far off land (1960’s Detroit to be exact), a group of young crusaders emerged from the morass of working class mediocrity, intent on changing the world through their art. They were the mighty MC5, the original rock and roll revolutionaries, and for a few short years, they laid waste to the pop music landscape, assaulting everyone’s sensibilities. Although commercially unsuccessful, the 5 established a reputation for kicking out the jams in more ways than one, and proved to be hugely influential to countless bands following in their footsteps.
For three decades, the story of the MC5 has been told only in sporadic articles and video clips, and the fading memories of those who experienced the 5 firsthand. Until now…
Indie filmmakers Thomas and Legler spent the better part of seven years researching every known fact, investigating every rumor, and interviewing every possible source associated with the 5. Their exhaustive efforts have culminated in a remarkably crafted 119-minute history lesson that chronicles the rise and fall of one of the greatest bands of all time. Viewers should be forewarned however, that this is not some watered down Behind The Music episode, or a bloated and ponderous rockumentary à la The Song Remains The Same. It is, simply, a “true testimonial.”
In the film’s opening scene, the camera pans over the present day ruins of the once proud Grande Ballroom (the Midwest’s answer to The Fillmore), as the haunting chords of “Future Now” ring in the distance. Climbing up crumbling stairwells and looking over the wreckage of the dance floor and stage area, we witness former greatness reduced to rubble. Gradually, the scene changes. We hear chanting and clapping, see lights flash. With the subtlety of a crashing meteorite, they appear! The MC5 in all of their star-spangled glory, tearing through another set on the main Grande stage. The footage is breathtaking, a glimpse of the band at its zenith.
Over the next two hours, concert footage and soundtrack combine with interviews from key players in the 5 saga. Surviving members Wayne Kramer (guitar), Michael Davis (bass), and Dennis Thompson (drums) recall the band’s early days. Becky Tyner and Sigrid Dobat (vocalist Rob Tyner’s widow and guitarist Fred Smith’s first wife, respectively) reminisce about the communal house they all shared as the band was gaining popularity. Original 5 manager John Sinclair remembers the radical White Panther Party and the band’s involvement in nontraditional politics. Amusing anecdotes and bittersweet recollections abound: teenaged Rob and Fred brawling with each other at a local hangout, the infamous gig at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (where the 5 were the only band with enough fortitude to show up and play), the major label signing of the 5. Every story, every song, and every concert clip—these define the legacy of a band that was a product and victim of its time.
The MC5 were not a bunch of disenfranchised hippie kids, or some garage band experiment gone awry. They were an extremely proficient musical unit that genuinely lived their lives according to the credo, “Kick out the jams.” In an age of peace, love and flower power, they embodied rebellion and anarchy, walking it and talking it like very few before (or after) them. They naively thought that they could take on the world, armed with only their instruments, free spirits and the power of possibility.
They created an amazing, if small, catalogue of recorded material, in addition to playing countless incendiary live performances, many highlighted in the film’s rare video and home movie footage. Of the many clips that survived the cutting room, one in particular is the Holy Grail for 5 fans: a concert sequence showing Fred Smith resplendent in his silver Sonic Suit.
The film tells a story that needed to be told, not only as a significant piece in the puzzle of musical history, but also as a means of closure for many involved. The 5, as everyone knows, ultimately imploded under the weight of their own political, social, and musical expectations. Successes were overshadowed by failures, culminating with the band’s demise into a haze of drugs, disillusionment and despair. The premature passing of Rob Tyner and Fred Smith leaves a notable void in the documentary’s interview segments, leaving viewers with a sense of “What if?” the entire group been around today.
A True Testimonial remembers a musical moment not to be experienced again. More significantly, it gives meaning to the efforts and exploits of a band that never really reaped the rewards it so justly deserved. So, buckle up brothers and sisters. In the immortal words of White Panther JC Crawford, “I give you a testimonial! The MC5!”