ATHENS, GA. INSIDE/OUT
d: Tony Gayton
p: Bill Cody
c: Jim Herbert
From Subterranean Productions and Spotlight Productions
82 minutes U.S.A. 1986
Like indie music? Hungry for independent film? Wanna see how Popeye exercises? Look no further than Tony Gaytons Athens, Ga. - Inside/Out. This doc is pure old school - shot on film (before "films" were shot on tape) no narration and represents a genre which sought not to sensationalize but simply show 'how things were.' And what was Athens, Ga. in the mid-1980's? A thriving indie music scene in the middle of a synthoid-melodic, over produced decade of sound. At the time, the music in Inside/Out was considered cutting edge. Now its enjoyed more as lost treasure, much like its images portaying life in small town America.
Athens, Georgia, U.S.A., located about 50 miles east north east of Atlanta, is described by our host and beermeister, Ort, as "one of the most Zen places on earth." This haven was known as a university town until the emergence of Pylon, the B52s and R.E.M. influenced local artists to write, paint and perform for the simple joy of creating something out of nothing. Taking it to larger markets like New York or L.A. was not as important as having fun and playing music.
The idea of "making it" has finally come for director Tony Gayton. Fifteen years after the success of Inside/Out, he has now penned two screen plays, Murder By Numbers and The Salton Sea, both produced in 2002 for Castle Rock Entertainment. After graduating from the University of Southern Californias film program, Gayton was sought out by producer-friend Bill Cody to shoot a version of the Errol Morris film Vernon, Florida, but with music. The two outsiders ventured to Athens, Ga. and found much more. At first they found much apprehension until they met local painter and filmmaker Jim Herbert. With Herbert on board so came the community and a small slice of American music history.
The film opens with
"Swan Swan H" in a sun-streaked abandoned church. You can almost smell the dust kicked up from the floor boards, feel the warmth of the sun breaking through the dirty windowpanes and sense a higher spirit watching over these vulnerable souls. Athens music is about perception, not perfection and about using what youve got, instead of being something youre not. (This church can also be seen inside the Lifes Rich Pageant album jacket)
After our brief intro to R.E.M. we begin our journey into the heart of Athens music, starting with one of its founders, the B52s. Watching home movies of their early concerts brings to life the period like no words can describe. I imagine the same feelings will be evoked 25 years from now while watching DV home video in an HD world. Most of the live shows in the film, as you would expect, are inside small dark pubs and dance halls. Shooting under these conditions can provide serious limitations but this does not suppress Herberts creativity or style. Throughout the film he gets a dreamy, poignant or supercharged feeling whenever he sees fit.
Listening to how the 52s started out is classic; sometimes its as simple as a bunch of friends sayin, "hey, lets start a band." Case-in-point: B-B-Q Killers. If music swapping was around in 1986 this group would have been be all the rage - dirt poor, but all the rage. Here Gayton and editor Adam Wolfe seamlessly weave live footage and interviews with the Killers into a high energy montage resolving with the prophetic words from the lead singer, "lets just say were not
uh... Zeppelin." But given the chance Im sure Robert Plant would have lifted some moves off this engaging showman.
From B-B-Q Killers to B-B-Q Masters we continue our journey through Athens meeting characters born to be on camera. Dexter Romweber and C. S. (Crow) LaResh are the Flat Duo Jets, a guitar/drums duo which fill more space than most five pieces I've seen. Crow hammers out thick, lucious beats on his 18" kick drum and "big ole ride" while Romweber is the quintessential front man. And much like the B-B-Q Killers, if you dont like their music you gotta like their style. The Jets believe in cheap equipment but their sound is priceless. On the steps of what looks to be their front porch, the two hold a make shift concert. Romweber works himself into a spiritual frenzy, broadcasted through his Marshall Amp, while Crow accents this sermon with juicy fills that echo hallelujah. This mystic performance is a fitting prelude for the spiritual leader of the Athens cultural scene, Rev. Howard Finster. Whats a movie about the South without a preacher? Its like having a talking finger without a face. Without this, Rev. Finster's finger never would have told him to "paint sacred art." (And the Talking Heads would have never received album cover of the year.)
The next stop in town is brunch with Peter Buck - a fitting mid-way point of the movie. Buck evaluates the big town vs. small town argument from a musicians perspective, describing the camaraderie formed between bands when they arent put in a position to fight for gigs. Once again, it's great to look back, after MTV interview after MuchMusic interview after VH1 interview to see these early conversations.
Gayton comes full circle by ending with another founding member of the Athens scene - Pylon. Judging from the brief but absorbing performance by singer Vanessa (Ellison) Briscoe Hay you tend to believe the hype about this band. Ive never seen someone so understated command such a huge presence. In a somber, matter of fact way, Vanessa describes how her friends started the band to have fun and all agreed once this ended, so would the music. But you cant help think this group closed the door on themselves by calling it quits because record labels demanded too much. Their "big break" came opening for U2, which was "fun, but not really our scene," says Hay. This is reminiscent of R.E.M.s feelings towards opening for the Police. At one point Gayton asks Vanessa if shell get back into the music. She responds saying she has no plans and has never been one to make plans. Here we get the feeling we are in the presence of the true creative spirit - something you sense Gayton was looking for the whole time - to burn twice as brightly if not for very long. Maybe thats why we rarely see art as pure as that found in Pylon, Flat Duo Jets, Terrance Malik or J.D.Salinger. But maybe that's what builds a greater appreciation for these rare breeds.
In the end, all these kids want to do is make music, not make it big (well most of them). No one wants to leave Athens and neither did I. Jim Herbert performs the perfect role of photographer - capturing a time and place in its most unadulterated form. A perfect document of small town America with big time ideals. Gayton performs equally well in constructing a piece that personifies the artists way.
If youre lucky enough to have an independent video store nearby that sells Meet the Osbornes dolls, Robert Crumb comics and stocks a back room devoted to Japanese Anime you may find an old VHS copy of this gem in the documentary section. If Blockbuster is your only option, youre shit outta luck. But praise Jesus for fiber optics; the B52s have a web page selling copies of the newly released DVD (as of October 2003) complete with commentary by Gayton and Cody and bonus footage including excerpts from a still to be released doc on the Flat Duo Jets.