Movie Review:  Rock Music Docs – the Monks, the Pixies, CSN&Y

Monks: theTransatlantic Feedback

The Monks, a legend among connoisseurs of esoteric rock music, have finally been discovered. In 1961, five American soldiers, following the lead of Elvis Presley, arrived in Germany. They put together a band, covering the new British music that was beginning to become popular. In 1965, two visionary managers got hold of them, shaved their heads, changed their style and christened them The Monks. Over the next three years, the band became famous in Europe as the anti-Beatles, their music the antithesis of everything that was popular at the time, pointing forward to trends such as punk and Kraut rock. In one piece of vintage performance footage, their forsaking of melody for pure rhythm beneath wild and erratic vocals suggests a prototype for the Talking Heads. “Monks” is essentially an oral history by the band members, and what becomes clear as they reminisce about their youth is how normal they all were. Thirty years after breaking up and returning home, The Monks performed their one and only American concert. Watching these guys in their 60s perform to a crowd for whom the music, if not the musicians, was contemporaneous, brings home the tragedy of being ahead of one’s time in popular culture.

CSNY: Déjà vu

A title card announcing that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young wrote protest songs that rivaled Bob Dylan ‘s and Phil Ochs’ effect on ’60s counterculture hit me as a shock, as only a handful of their songs have overtly political themes. But that is the claim at the top of “CSNY: Déjà vu,” Neil Young ‘s documentary on their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour.

The tour wasn’t so much a CSNY affair as a showcase for the songs from Young’s excellent album “Living with War,” with the other three members providing backup vocals, guitar interplay and hits from their collective and individual catalogs. As Stephen Stills puts it, “We were Dawn to Neil’s Tony Orlando.”

Rather than keeping the camera aimed at the stage, Young collaborates with television journalist Mile Cerre  to fashion several “60 Minutes”-styled episodes on things he wishes to either promote or expose. Among the former is the musical career of Josh Hilse, a war veteran-turned-protest singer whose amateurish “A Traitor’s Death” is performed in several settings, including a living room duet with Young. He also plugs Vets4Vets, Rep.PatrickMurphy ‘s campaign for Congress and his own Web site, neilyoung.com, which looks a lot better than most of the movie.

Exposés include an intriguing theory that Bush refuses to reinstate the draft because he is afraid it would unify students against the war, as it did during Vietnam. There may be some truth in that, but other parallels between the two wars are wishful thinking from those who see it as a rematch between the peace movement and the war department.

The concerts themselves are only exciting when Young is at center stage. Although a balding millionaire in his 60s, he retains the ragged energy of a rock ‘n’ roll road warrior. Not so with the other members, particularly Stills. If songs could take out restraining orders against their authors, it would be illegal for him to come within singing distance of “For What It’s Worth.”

Young uses audience reaction to songs such as “Let’s Impeach the President” to support his vision of a divided America. There are the ones who sing along, and others who complain about paying $250 dollars for a concert only to find themselves at a political rally. The displeasure of the latter may be shared by those paying $10 to see a CSNY concert film and getting what amounts to Cerre’s audition reel for “60 Minutes.”

loudQUIETloud:  A FILM ABOUT THE PIXIES

The title refers to the style of alternating quiet verses with loud choruses, a gimmick originated by The Pixies and later appropriated by Nirvana. In 1993, after five years and six albums, the Pixies broke up. Stephen Cantor and Matthew Galkin ‘s documentary of their 2004 comeback tour portrays the band members as disturbed and unlikable people who cannot communicate with each other. Singer/guitarist Black Francis battles insomnia by reciting self-affirmations such as “you are cute” and “people like you,” while bassist Kim Deal  clings to her sister as feverishly as she clings to sobriety. On this tour bus, where pill-popping drummer David Lovering  is hooked up to his iPod as if it were an I.V., only guitarist Joey Santiago, who agreed to the reunion for economic reasons, seems normal. The concert footage, which is exceptionally well photographed and recorded, offers clips of varying lengths from a wealth of songs. The rest of the film glimpses the stress disorders that can develop when average people with problems become popular celebrities.

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