Judge Adam Arseneau once started a teenage riot using a smoke bomb and a Barry Manilow record.
"It was about making music that referenced nothing else, reminded you of
It was only a matter of time before somebody made a documentary about the genre of music that, by its very nature, resisted all attempts to chronicle it. Kill Your Idols chronicles the rise of the atonal No Wave music scene in New York City, a sarcastic play off the New Wave music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A sub genre within a sub genre of apathy, experimental noise, and art-house theater performances, No Wave lasted for about 18 months and vanished entirely from the musical landscape, but its influence resonated throughout the New York music scene for decades to come.
Facts of the Case
To the uninitiated, No Wave music sounds like someone playing a Farfisa organ by smashing it with a burlap sack full of cats. The caterwauling, industrial sounds, and arrhythmic melodies qualify as music, at least from a technical standpoint. Described as "aggressive outbursts of anti-music," it was a musical style composed entirely of emotion, the free-form experimentation of jazz music combined with the musical ineptitude and chaotic noise of punk rock. The highlight of the movement was the No New York compilation album, produced by Brian Eno and featuring the Contortions, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Mars, and DNA.
Constructing a history of a musical genre that defied all classification, Kill Your Idols features interviews from No Wave founders Suicide, Theoretical Girls, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch, Swans, Foetus, and Glenn Branca, as well as newer acts influenced by the sound like Sonic Youth, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, A.R.E. Weapons, flux information sciences, Black Dice, and Gogol Bordello.
Don't feel bad if you've never heard of any of these bands. Hardly anyone did at the time either. A tiny blip in the musical anthropological landscape of North America, No Wave was over as fast as it begun. It was a music designed to sever all borders to existing music and have its roots in absolutely nothing, and it sounded chaotic, experimental, and utterly dreadful. Within a year, all the bands had broken up and moved on to other artistic endeavors, but one band walked away from those shows inspired by the noise and began creating its own brand of musical rebellion: Sonic Youth.
Within a year, No Wave was passé, save for Sonic Youth, which has continued on its path of sonic deconstruction to this very day. Riding on waves of feedback and rhythmic droning, the band stayed alive long enough to surf the waves of the Grunge movement in the 1990s and achieved a surprising level of commercial success, influencing numerous bands in the New York area to continue the No Wave tradition. Indeed, the film recognizes and appreciates New York City as the only place in the entire world capable of supporting such musical experimentation, both today and yesterday.
First-time filmmaker S.A. Crary constructs a complex history of No Wave from old hand-held video camera footage, art-house experimental film, and recent interviews. Kill Your Idols starts with Suicide, the first No Wave band, chronicling the major players and acts that contributed to the chaos. Featuring interviews from scene contributors like avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, Martin Rev (Suicide), Arto Lindsay (DNA), Michael Gira (Swans), Jim Sclavunos and Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) and Jim Thirwell (Foetus), the film slowly transitions towards newer acts, interviewing Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Karen O. and Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello), tracing a musical development through the generations.
Then something amusing and unexpected happens. The battle lines get drawn between the old generation and the new generation of noise purveyors.
For the first two-thirds of Kill Your Idols, all is well. We are introduced to this new generation of noisemakers, full of interview and smiling faces, happy and carefree. Suddenly, the film turns on its subjects, stopping just short of calling them all posers, insinuating that the current New York music scene is nothing more than a derivative fashion show. This shift in gears is sudden, examining the inherent hypocrisy in a new generation of musicians making money and selling themselves as the new coming of a musical movement that abhorred mainstream attention and convention.
While Kill Your Idols gives a lot of screen time to newer acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, and Black Dice, and seems to appreciate their musical talents, it has fairly harsh words to say about their mainstream acceptance. The film implies that the current New York music scene is a homogenized, mainstream version of an old movement attempting to co-opt nostalgia as a marketing device. By embracing this success, a once-rebellious anti-music form becomes the new acceptable mainstream music—and this seems to piss off the old generation of experimenters to no end.
This is a film with an agenda, to say the least. It takes a jaded and cynical tone towards the revitalization of the New York experimental style of music, claiming that new musicians are missing the point and simply mimicking the movements. The original No Wave movement came pre-installed with cynicism and disillusionment towards the music industry, but the new revitalization balances itself on a knife-edge between embracing and rejecting the industry, like a snake head eating itself. Confused? Never fear, because advertisers and Rolling Stone will always be happy to tell the new generation what to rebel against. As appreciative as Kill Your Idols is towards the new generation, it takes great pains in observing the trend of the music industry selling a scene back on itself. The sheer tones of nihilism in the last few minutes of the film are deliciously spiteful, cackling in their cynicism.
Is there a certain amount of sour grapes at play here from the old generation? Absolutely. Nevertheless, Kill Your Idols is keen in observing the inherent problem in the gentrification and commercialization of a musical trend that claims its roots in a music that went out of its way to sever all ties to commercial music. The old generation praises bands taking performance and musical experimental forward, like Gogol Bordello, which could only be described as "gypsy punk," utterly original and chaotic, sounding like nothing before it, but heavily criticizes bands obsessed with self-reference and nostalgia.
Yes, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy at play here in stating that No Wave tolerates no nostalgia, then glorifying the music through a documentary, but it is a manageable hypocrisy. The way I see it, I'd rather have the hypocrisy and a good documentary than nothing at all. I found the shift in tone in Kill Your Idols unexpected and surprising, and I liked that; it transformed a fairly run-of-the-mill musical documentary into something memorable. Of course, with a title like Kill Your Idols, I probably should have seen it coming.
Comprised of some seriously bizarre live black-and-white footage, Kill Your Idols alternates between acceptable and abysmal audio and video quality. The modern interviews appear to have been shot on HD, exhibiting graininess, saturated colors, and decent clarity. For a documentary, the overall experience is enjoyable for a non-anamorphic presentation. For sound, we only get a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo presentation, but considering the quality of the archival footage and performances collected for this film, this is more than sufficient. The audio exhibits clear dialogue and minimal bass response.
In terms of extras, we get 50 minutes of bonus interviews and deleted scenes from the film, which appears to be overrun material recorded during the filming of the documentary, as well as four live performances from Gogol Bordello, A.R.E. Weapons, Soft Circle, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, and a music video for Flux Information Sciences. Not a bad offering for a single-disc presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No Wave is terrible music. No, don't argue with me, all you hipsters out there. It's terrible. That was the whole point.
Is the No Wave scene artistic? Yes. Is it fascinating, interesting, stirring and moving? Absolutely. Does it sound like somebody dropping a crate of frying pans down a flight of stairs into a maternity ward? Yes, it does. And the quicker you hip kids can come to terms with that, the happier you will be.
As such, a documentary about music that actually fights all attempts to appreciate it might have limited appeal, to say the least.
Scenesters and hipsters beware: Kill Your Idols will make you feel slightly foolish. Informative and scathing, it pulls no punches, suffering no fools and tolerating little nostalgia. This film is a testament to a musical scene that attempted to undermine everything it touched and, in the same spirit, Kill Your Idols is a film that undermines the new generation of hipsters that would flock under its banner.
Kill Your Idols is cocky, hypocritical, noisy, and just a little bitter—exactly the way a documentary about No Wave should be.
It definitely makes me want to go dig out my old, dust-laden Sonic Youth collection. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
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