Sunday, October 21, 2012

These Guys are ANYTHING but Jerks

As an alternative to the recent trend of heavy metal documentaries, along comes director Dave (1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE) Markey's latest independent feature, MY CAREER AS A JERK, which chronicles L.A. hardcore group the Circle Jerks from their 1979 beginning up to the current day. Needless to say, if you're a fan of the Jerks you'll enjoy this; if you're not a fan or have no idea who they are, I'm not sure if this will cause too much interest as this isn't a typical "rock star" tragedy story, despite some dark moments the band went through.

While much of the archival footage Markey has collected won't be new to long time fans, there are some scenes from gigs as early as 1980 I had never seen before. The majority of CAREER are exclusive interviews with founding band members Keith Morris (fresh off his stint with Black Flag) and Greg Hetson (from Red Kross/Bad Religion), and also original drummer Lucky Lehrer. Second bassist, Earl Liberty, is also interviewed quite extensively and offers some great stories on their "second incarnation," when he replaced original bassist Roger Rogerson and Lucky was replaced on drums by the amazing Chuck Biscuits (who has played with more bands than anyone I can think of).

One of my favorite sections deals with the Circle Jerks' infamous 1984 performance on the late night NBC program ROCK PALACE, where they played a 10-minute set to a nation-wide audience. It was Chuck Biscuits' ripping drum performance here that inspired me (and I'm sure countless other drummers) to get behind a kit, and to this day the energy he brought to the band has become legendary and fondly remembered by both Morris and Hetson. It was nice to see/hear some of this footage in good quality after years of horrible VHS and Internet bootlegs. Biscuits and Liberty were the Jerk's rhythm section for only one year ('83-'84), but the impact and influence they made upon the entire punk community was second to none.

Like most documentaries, there are recollections of alcohol abuse and drug addiction (the latter which lead to one original member's death), but the film thankfully doesn't focus on this; instead it treats them as a side note--a speed-bump on the band's hectic touring schedule and member-change annoyances.

Other interviewees include Henry Rollins and Bad Religion vocalist Greg Graffin. I liked how Markey introduces us to third bassist Zander Schloss (in an interview, he shares how he met the band while on the set of the 1984 film REPO MAN, where he had a role as the nerdy Kevin. It's quite funny, especially when they talk about the Jerks' contribution to the film's soundtrack).

My only real gripe with MY CAREER AS A JERK is the LACK of interviewees: it would have been nice to hear from the Red Hot Chili Pepper's bassist Flea, who did a brief stint with the band (there's some great footage of him playing live with the Jerks using his non-punk, non-pic style of playing) and continues to be a fan. And although drummer Chuck Biscuits had a bad falling out, it would've been nice to get even a brief piece of commentary from him. But thanks to the mass amount of information given by those who ARE interviewed, it's easy to forgive the film this minor shortcoming.

I learned some great things about one of my favorite punk bands including (SPOILER ALERT) the mind-blowing fact that 80s pop singer Debbie Gibson (!) did the backing vocals on their 1995 song 'I Wanna Destroy You!' (there's even footage of Gibson onstage with the band at one show, which for me was worth the price of admission alone). For years I always thought the Jerks' first three albums featured some of the BEST drumming of any punk band, especially on the track RED TAPE from their debut album 'Group Sex.' Imagine my suprise when Keith Morris mentions their drummer was so good because he was actually a trained jazz musician (not to mention a law student). WOW! Whoever said punks can't play need to take a looky here...

CAREER is a solid look at the spirit of a true indepedent band, from their rocky beginning to their controversial band member changes, througn their self-produced tours and brief workings with a major record label. And while there isn't too much said about the band member's current projects (although they're briefly mentioned), director Markey keeps his subjects focused to deliver a genuinely interesting and entertaining look at one of America's all-time best hardcore punk bands. If you're a fan you don't want to miss it.

(The film is currently screening around the country at midnight and will be on DVD October 23. This review screened on Oct. 21, 2012 at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
-Nick Cato

CIRCLE JERKS frontman Keith Morris (in mock Michael Jackson outfit) on the NBC late night music show THE ROCK PALACE (1984).