Wednesday, February 25, 2015

DVD Review: Black Lips – Kids Like You & Me

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Black Lips – Kids Like You & Me
Written and directed by Bill Cody
Subterranean Productions / A Middle East Tour Film
MVD Visual
79 minutes, 2012 / 2013

A week after huge anti-United States riots in Cairo in 2012 that included storming of the embassy, the Atlanta-native pop-punk band Black Lips began a tour of the Middle East. It was two years of preparation to line up all their punks in a row, and they were on their way.

I was touring around in Egypt for a week in 1993, and while there was a level of happiness by businesses that we were there spending tourist money, there was also an undercurrent of suspicion, even then, about us scholars from New York University traipsing around the Nile tombs and valleys. I certainly did not hear any Western music there back then, never mind punk rock. Post-9/11, it is even more astonishing to have this band touring the countries of Cyprus, Egypt, U.A.E., Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I am going to assume that no member of the band was a – er – of the Hebraic faith.

The documentary of this tour begins with news broadcasts of the riots, leading into a live performance by the band. This is a nicely handled juxtaposition. There are a couple of other wise choices, such as starting in Cyprus, which is an easier country to transition into the tour. The band also picks Lebanese “indie rockers” Lazzy Lung to share the bill. The lead singer moved to Lebanon just as the Israeli conflict happened and formed his band then.

For the first show in Egypt (where a majority of this documentary takes place), we see a clip of the band playing, the audience bouncing, mixed with annotated film excerpts of the Arab Spring two years earlier. The added historical video bites include sound that drowns out the band, which does seem like an unwise choice because in this context it sounds preachy. See the band or hear a history lesson? Both important, but both conflict. It’s the same mindset as having a PowerPoint slide that says one thing and the person at the podium saying something else. Well, it can be read or heard, but not both. By presenting the history lesson during the song, it takes the emphasis away from both.

The band also starts off coming across as a bit shallow to me, I’m sorry to say, but I think that's more of the director's choices. I mean, we follow one of them in an excursion to buy aftershave. You’re in Egypt and that’s what interests you? Then they’re skateboarding on some steps; well, falling more than skating. I would have not bothered including that footage, as it has nothing to do with anything. Plus, they’re touring with a band that speaks the language, so why not show them as interpreters (which they probably were)? The answer is probably that theoretically, cinematic “confusion = chaos = interest.”

Now before you think I’m talking all doom’n’gloom, there are way more positive things about the film than not. Besides many shots of Black Lips playing, as well as giving some nice time to Lazzy Lung, we do get to see some really interesting current news, such as a brief commentary by an ex-pat (woman) writer, and we watch the band listen to an NPR report about them being in the Middle East.

More interesting than bad skateboarding is seeing them at the Giza pyramids (a life highlight when I did it), and talking to locals who are interested in who the band are, and what Westerners are doing there, braving possibly dangerous waters of political and cultural change. I met up with some of that as well. It’s both scary and thrilling to have complete strangers in that part of the world walk up to you and try to talk to you because you are different.

One thing I noticed is that at their shows, there seems to be a lot of Westerners, including blonde women. However, you never see the band do any hook-ups, with men or women (I have no idea about their orientation, honestly), which is fine with me. Another female-related aspect I was interested in is that the film is shown being shot by a Western woman with dyed blonde hair, and wondered how the locals would react to her. Apparently, this is never mentioned or touched upon, which I think is a mistake, even if she isn’t a member of the band.

It gets more interesting as they head off to play in Erbil, Iraq, not a place you may imagine as being welcoming to an American band. Also, comparing the extreme opulence of Dubai to the more austere Erbil is a lesson all in itself to this viewer.

I also found the interviews with members of Lazzy Lung talking about living through the civil war in Lebanon, and how “normal” life became in the midst of it, more fascinating than most of what is said by Black Lips, and wanted to hear more about that.

For me, the big flaw of the film is that we never really get to know much about the band as individuals. Yes, they are interviewed separately, but nothing deep. I know as little about the band’s personnel as when I started the film, other than they like to skateboard, nearly all have facial hair of some sort, one of them is a “news junkie,” and one of them always annoyingly wears an oversized baseball cap. What we do learn about them, and this is a strong point in the film for me, is that we see the band interviewed on numerous media in various countries, including Cairo and Dubai.

Also, it would have helped if their music had a caption crawl. Speaking of which, to be honest, I wasn’t really familiar with the Black Lips, musically, before this, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to hear what they sound like. Definitely not my taste, and they reminded me of the slickness of the Eagles of Death Metal more than punk, which is fine, just not something I’m going to run out and buy. I found the music of Lazzy Lung more interesting.

There isn’t anything really controversial here; nothing to make you say “wow,” but it is interesting how the news footage is interspersed with the location of the band. The closest they get is a very quick discussion of how one of the venues cancelled because the band had once been in Israel, but they get another gig in that city in Egypt, so all is good, I guess. The tour seems to have been a success, and when they talk about how an earlier excursion in India did not go well or as expected, I wanted to see the film of that. Perhaps a prequel?

The extras are the trailer (natch), an almost three minute clip in Cairo of the complete song “Oh Katrina” by Black Lips, a (more interesting) complete song by Lazzy Lung at the same venue, and a nearly 8-minute interview on Lebanese MTV (I kid you not).

If you’re a fan of the band, or curious about them, this is a release that is worth the view; if not, well…


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