Bad Religion may be one of the most cerebral of punk rock bands, but they're still a punk rock band... so playing a loud, fast show to a writhing mass of teenagers packed into a small dark club is a major part of their story. Their live shows are all about blasting through song after song like a relentless machine; that frenzy and power is captured in the concert documentary Along the Way, with the band storming through 26 songs in around an hour.
Recorded in 1989, during the European tour for their third album Suffer, Along the Way spotlights a raw Bad Religion that hadn't yet become fond of incorporating pop tunefulness into their songs. The songs come largely from the band's 1982 debut album How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and 1988's Suffer, which was recorded when the band came back together after an absence, to rejuvenate a band that had gone through lineup changes and then fallen apart. As such, Suffer and Along the Way represent the band's second birth, a time when the band members were playing with fierce determination. The film captures all of the sweat, slamdancing, and energy of a Bad Religion show at that time, and the 26 songs played capture the raw spirit and rebellious, inquisitive sentiment of their music.
As a live album, the musical portion of Along the Way is perfect, a blistering performance by one of the best American punk bands ever. But as a visual document of the concert experience, it's marred by a fear that unfortunately marks too many concert films: the fear that viewers will get bored. More specifically, Along the Way takes 14 concerts and splices together the performances into one, as if to just present one complete concert would be too boring for fans to watch. The sound recording is pure -- the songs are taken piecemeal from the different concerts, but not merged together. Yet the visuals constantly switch from one performance to the next to the next, going through pretty much all 14 shows in each song. That means what you're hearing doesn't always match up to what you're seeing, and Along the Way stands less as a historical document of a Bad Religion concert, more as a montage of scenes from the past. The purist in me hates that, as does the part of me that wants to watch the band play in the same clothes for more than 30 seconds at a time.
But in spite of the fact that it's a mutt-like hybrid, Along the Way is still the best visual document of early Bad Religion that most people have access to. And the concert scenes are almost surpassed in that regard by a few brief interviews with the band that are used as interludes. It's fitting to the film that these also seem to be awkwardly spliced into the concert -- to go abruptly from one batch of songs to Brett Gurewitz speaking candidly about his drug addiction and then back to some more songs, for example, is awkward in the extreme. These interview segments provide insight into where the band member's heads were at in 1989 in a casual but meaningful way. But they also are placed together with the music in a haphazard way that is unfortunately typical of Along the Way.
It's a pleasure for Bad Religion fans to watch this, sure, but it's not as much of a pleasure as it should have been, and is a mediocre substitute for either a real documentary about the band or a real concert film. Instead, look at is a photo album connected to a great live album; look at the pictures here and there, but turn the songs up and listen closely. You'll get a taste not only for the group's intelligent commentary on society and human relations, but for the intensity of their performances.