What is it about musicians and bands that make for such good documentaries? I mean, I love a good documentary. Whether it is Michael Moore’s preachiness that all things big are evil (except for him, of course) or a documentary on The History Channel about how footballs, baseballs and golfballs are made I love documentaries. However, nothing makes me stop the remote and sit for an hour more than a documentary about a band.
I love “Behind the Music.” I don’t even care if the musician or band is one I just cannot stand. I love to find out how the band got together. I love the familiar track that nearly every one of those stories takes. In each case a bunch of people get together with this crazy idea of making music. They start out dirt poor and living in sheds and then go on to get someone’s attention, achieve success and then fall somewhere along the way. Sometimes it’s drugs and sometimes it’s alcohol and sometimes it’s just clashing personalities and sometimes it’s all of the above but at some point each one has problems.
So, it was with great interest that I put in the DVD “Not a Photograph: The Mission of Burma Story.” I had never heard of Mission of Burma. I was not into punk. I am still not really into punk. My brother was into punk and he would sometimes force all of us in the car on a family vacation to listen to the Sex Pistols or Black Flag or the Misfits. To me it always sounded like a lot of noise and appealed to me as much as free form jazz ever did.
Still, over the years, I have come to learn that it really was a very open and interesting time during the late 70s and early 80s in New York and other places. What compromised Punk back then was really anything that wasn’t disco and wasn’t arena rock. So, the kind of punk that was played here in the states wasn’t necessarily the same as what was being played in the UK. So, for every Fear there was also a Ramones. For every Sex Pistols there was Blondie or Talking Heads.
Mission of Burma formed in Boston. Actually, they formed even before they were Mission of Burma as Moving Parts in 1978. Clint Conley played bass. Roger Miller played guitar. That group broke up and Clint and Roger felt they should continue. They found a guy named Peter Prescott to play drums and Mission of Burma was formed.
“Not a Photograph” tells you all of this because it is aware that you may have not heard of this group. In fact the DVD case has to ask “what if the most influential band you never heard decided to reunite after 19 years?” The answer, for me, is that you get a pretty interesting documentary.
I am a bit of a snob when it comes to movies. I do prefer to watch movies on film rather than video. However, that would really be my one and only complaint about “Not a Photograph.” I wish there had been the funding available for them to actually film this rather than having it all on video tape. Beyond that the filming is excellent. The footage is excellent. The stories are told well. You root for these guys even if you don’t like their music. The concert footage is excellent.
I will confess I don’t think I am much of a Mission of Burma fan. Yes, I enjoyed the movie for the sake of it being a good movie, but it didn’t really make me want to run out and buy any of their CDs. It did make me appreciate how strange music and the music business can be.
You see Mission of Burma formed in 1979. They became huge in Boston. They got airplay in Boston. They released two singles that did well in Boston. They then released a wildly popular EP. Then the released on studio album, Vs, and then they broke up. Why? Roger Miller had tinnitus. Tinnitus is a constant ringing in your ears. You see, Mission of Burma was and is loud. They are incredibly loud. Roger took to playing on stage first with earplugs and eventually large, bulky earmuffs like you wear on a firing range.
After that Roger and Peter did some solo gigs. Peter started running in his own music store. Clint, meanwhile, never picked up another instrument for 19 years. He worked for a local television station. Then came 2002 and for reasons no on in the band could explain they decided to get back together, go on tour and then record new albums.
All of this is told in compelling, funny, fascinating fashion in “Not a Photograph.” So much of this band is fascinating despite the fact that their music just doesn’t do much for me. They have a fourth member. In the original version it was a man named Martin Swope. What did Marin play? He played the sound board. Yes, the sound board. He would record them while they were on stage and then play tape loops as if they were instruments. I love that idea even if the results shown in this film amounted to noise to my ears.
Mission of Burma still record and tour now. They have come back twenty years after retiring during the height of their popularity. If you love the history of music and are fascinated by how many different sounds there are for different tastes then you should definitely seek out and watch “Not a Photograph.” If you happen to be hipper than I am and are familiar with Mission of Burma then you definitely need to find this DVD and add it to your collection.
In addition to the basic documentary the DVD includes some concert footage from the band’s heydays in the late 70s. There are also concert scenes from their more recent tours and from their recording sessions. Not much else in the way of frills on this thing.
That’s OK, though. It’s the story of this strange, loud band with the strange name. Oh, and the name? Well, watch the DVD and you can find out where they got that from. Even that’s interesting.
I may not be added Mission of Burma to my list of downloaded songs and I may not be running out to buy and Mission of Burma CDs but I am glad I know about them. I am glad they have gone on to influence musicians like Moby. I am glad they are out there because there should always be music that some people don’t like but others are passionate about and that is very, very anti-pop.