We always suspected Judge Jake Ware was a bit of a punk.
"Growing up here, nothing was ever gonna come to us. So we were in a position of having to make our own entertainment."—American Princes
I was completely ready to love Towncraft: Notes From a Local Scene. When I was a kid, I was part of an alternative music scene. I'm also a long term fan of punk music. So, in theory, I was the ideal audience for this film. Sadly, Towncraft left me feeling like a new kid on the block trying hard to fit into the local scene, but being made to feel like an outsider by the exclusive and cliquey locals.
In the late 1980s, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a bunch of bored and isolated
high school kids who were into Black Flag, Fugazi and Dead Kennedys decided to
mess around with instruments, make a loud noise and dance to it. In the
pre-internet age, they had little instruction on how these things should be
done, or how others were doing it, so they went ahead and made something that
they thought would be punk rock. They formed bands, made music, put on
boisterous gigs wherever they could, made their own fanzines documenting their
scene, did all the artwork themselves, and even opened up a part-time record
store where they sold hard to find music that they were inspired by as well as
any demo tapes and singles that their own bands recorded (opening hours:
16:00-18:00, after the owner's day at school was done).
In 1992, after a few years of honing their skills, the scene reached an apex when the various groups joined in an effort to release a compilation album including some 11 songs from the various local bands. They recorded and pressed a small quantity of vinyl, and sent it out nationwide to various magazines and radio stations. Amazingly, they got themselves a good deal of positive attention. The title of that record was Towncraft.
Well, this DVD package should really be called Towncraft 2.0, as it is more or less exactly the same concept, an extended 2 CD demo showcasing the Little Rock punk and post-punk scene, only this time improved with the addition of a lengthy documentary and a small book as extras, both of which offer an introduction to the 20 years that led up to this release.
I love the concept behind Towncraft. The idea of young people being passionate about something and then elevating their passion beyond mere consumption and making it into something real and productive is wonderful. Young people are so saturated by media and other people's big ideas that it's all too easy for them to become apathetic and lay back into a dulled consumerist trance. So whenever there is a group of kids that decides to make their own art, to create their own scene, I am all behind them and applauding loudly. The kids of Little Rock's late '80s punk scene, did just that; they made their own scene and eventually learned to make music that was as good as that of their heroes.
Director Richard Matson must have done a great deal of research and interviewed large numbers of people to put this film together. It is clearly a labour of love. The sheer amount of archive photographs and video footage he managed to uncover is impressive and forms the backbone of the film.
However, this attention to detail is also the film's biggest flaw. Towncraft is exhaustive, and it is also exhausting. The Little Rock punk scene is looked at closely enough to pick up on minutiae. The director was a member of the scene before turning his attention to film making, and it's clear that he wanted to include just about every friend and colleague in the film. It's a neat touch for those in the know, but for the casual viewer it is confusing at first, then frustrating and finally boring.
The film is too saturated with detail. Scenes are constructed from too many interviews, and there are so many characters included that to an outsider it is hard to keep track of who is who. By my count, Matson included footage of at least 55 interviewees!
It does not help that Matson is attempting to document a 20 year history. This kind of scope will inevitably lead to a lengthy documentary. Perhaps he should have focused only on the late '80s and early '90s scene, the trailblazers of Little Rock punk, and then only on the key bands from that group. The climax of the film could very well have been the release of the Towncraft LP in 1992 and the positive national press it received. Instead that is only the half way point of the film.
Furthermore, the film is about 25 minutes too long. It should have been like a punk song: short, sharp, shocked. Instead it plods along like epic rock tracks "Kashmir" or "Free Bird," the antithesis of punk. It includes all kinds of extraneous footage that should have been left in the deleted scenes part of the DVD. I think that the director's proximity to the material worked against him when it came to the editing of the film and I wish that someone totally unconnected to the group of people being profiled had been given the job of editor.
The picture quality is only so-so and includes footage shot on a variety of video cameras, some of it very old. The audio is decent and serviceable.
The extras included with this DVD, however, make it a nice package. The book is a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping that it would be a collection of archival interviews and cuttings from the old fanzines that are mentioned so often in the film. Instead, it contains a series of recent interviews with the key players of the scene as they reflect back on their youth and what they managed to achieve. It's an OK addition, but it covers much of the same ground as the film. The highlight of the package is the 2 CD 40 song compilation that gives an extensive overview of the Little Rock punk and post punk scenes between 1986 and 2007. It's a great listen.
Towncraft: Notes From a Local Scene would make a wonderful package for anyone involved with the Little Rock music scene over the last 25 odd years. The film and book are full of vignettes from well known members of the scene and would act as a terrific summary and a nice guide down memory lane. To the rest of the world and casual film viewers, the Towncraft boxset would offer an intriguing peak into a music culture of a smallish town, but the exhaustive film might test their patience.
The director gets 15 days in juvie for self-indulgence. But the kids of
Little Rock are free to rock on.
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