A thorough portrait of the music scene around Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville circa 1994.
Half-Cocked's opening credits share time with stark snippets of city streets and buildings, some of which have seen better days. It looks like the perfect setting for a burgeoning music scene, where restless kids strap on guitars and, to paraphrase the Drive-by Truckers (who, admittedly, emerged from a different scene), channel their demons into walls of noise and sound.
In that vein, Half-Cocked is an indie kid's fantasy: steal a van full of instruments, con your way onto the stage, and wow people with your distorted avant-garde stylings -- even though you don't even know how to hook up your amps, much less play your instruments. Or is that more of a prankster's fantasy, to expose a club full of buzz-chasing hipsters as poseurs? Half-Cocked seems to recognize itself as both, following a group of disaffected youth as they -- even though they scarcely know how to play -- follow the often aborted hero's journey of bands, right down to the sullen lack of communication that signals the end.
The story centers around narrator Tara, a morose girl who compares her job in a ticket booth to the life of a gerbil in its cage. She bears the usual complaints about small town life and its attendant lack of privacy. She hates her brother, who leads a band called the Guillotines (and whose equipment and van she and her friends steal). For most of the film, even after the plot gets going, she pretty much walks around in a listless haze.
Her friends are your standard rag-tag band of artsy misfits: kids who draw, write poetry, and in one case, yell "Hi, Polaroid!" every time he takes a picture. As characters go, they're a mumbling, shuffling, sullen bunch. The cityscapes, though, also assert themselves as characters. Shot in naturalistic black and white, Half-Cocked's backdrop is a blur of asphalt, road signs, and coffee shops. As the movie progresses, that vaguely defined scenery helps to make Tara and her friends seem like more of an actual road-weary band.
Half-Cocked can be a frustrating film to watch, though, partly because the acting is very uneven. To paraphrase one of its creators, Half-Cocked is a film where musicians -- indie artists local to the scene -- pretend to be actors pretending to be musicians. So it seems unfair to criticize the acting in a film that exists primarily because an artistic community came together. But 10 years down the line, if you're not intimately familiar with the scene or the personalities involved, the acting suffers from the distancing of time. The directing also suffers from the off-kilter feel symptomatic of fledgling directors. Even straightforward scenes, like the one where the band shoplift from a convenience store, feel a little awkward.
So if Half-Cocked isn't about the acting, or the action, what's its appeal? Primarily, it paints a thorough portrait of the music scene around Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville circa 1994. Members of indie bands like Lambchop, the Grifters, Shipping News, June of 44, Rodan, and Ruby Falls all show up in the film, and the soundtrack -- anchored by acts such as Polvo, Helium, and Freakwater -- is a first-rate indie time capsule. Locals may thrill to the sight of the long-lost Lucy's Record Shop, but even those of us who weren't there can get some feel of what it was like to be hanging out in the streets and parking lots of these Tennessee cities.
The film also paints an accurate picture of the road grind, both the highs (afterparties, crashing on floors, playing living rooms) and the lows (begging for food, cities gliding by outside van windows, and relationships fraying). In fact, two of the film's most satisfying moments come toward the end. In one, a waitress with a heart of gold tries to talk the cash-strapped band into robbing the restaurant where she works. In another, after the band is on the brink of dissolution, the Grifters hold court on the monotonous blur and subtle satisfactions of the road.
Most of the DVD's bonus features add to Half-Cocked's time capsule effect. There's an on-disc collection of Michael Galinsky photos, a collection of Sean Meadows' photos and drawings, as well a "Scraps" featurette full of photos and spoken reminiscences by folks from that scene and time. There's even a Spaceheads video.
The most substantial extra is the inclusion of Radiation, which Half-Cocked creators Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky filmed while taking Half-Cocked around the film festival circuit. It tells the tale of a Unai, a Spanish rock promoter who brings indie rock group Come over for a tour, only to lose them after the first club owner refuses to pay. Improvising to keep his tour going, he begins promoting Mary, an American performance artist with a penchant for using Barbie dolls for drumsticks. Things go well for a while, but on this tour, at least, Unai is destined to fail.
Even though Radiation was made only a short time after Half-Cocked, it shows definite growth on the part of both Hawley and Galinsky (who would go on to be involved with 2002's Horns and Halos and 2005's Code 33 documentaries). The pacing's better, and the story has more momentum. They also make better use of their surroundings, letting the natural feel of Spain's streets flavor the film. While Radiation is a music-oriented film like Half-Cocked, it's more sparing in its use of musical performances by acts like Come, Stereolab, and el inquilino comunista. In short, it feels like a more well-rounded film, despite a running time of only 60 minutes.