(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

DVD review - Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (2010)

Eclectic democracy may not sell albums, but it makes for groundbreaking music

I remember when I first heard Fishbone. The heady mix of ska, punk, and anarchy of Party At Ground Zero blew me away. I followed them avidly up through Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe and then watched the band seem to fall apart as original members left. All of this resonated as Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone approached Fishbone's career as a band that never achieved the commercial success they deserved.

Ultimately, Everyday Sunshine can't deliver a happy ending or even an unequivocal, uplifting sentiment because that's not how history played out. Instead, Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler offer testimonials to the band's influence and a character study of Fishbone's magic. They also outline the band's history and travails. There's plenty of nostalgia, but it's tempered with the raw emotions and tensions within the band.

Anderson and Metzler had wide open access to Fishbone's members. So, much of the early history of the band comes straight from the source. It's not surprising that desegregation busing had a huge effect on opening up their horizons, exposing them to punk music like their white classmates. On the other hand, it's hard to reconcile Angelo Moore's non-hood, Jehovah's Witness youth with the wild stage presence he developed. These interviews provide a sense of the personalities in the band.

The peak of Everyday Sunshine's positivity comes from the musings of Fishbone's peers and famous fans, like Mike Watt (Minutemen), Gwen Stefani (No Doubt), Branford Marsalis, and Ice-T. They make the case for Fishbone's impact on not just the L.A. punk scene, but the music scene in general. By bridging race lines and breaking stereotypes of black music, they breathed a wild life into the music and opened doors for bands like Living Color. As Ice=T mentions, "It might not have sounded black. It was very black, if you listen to what they're saying." The archive band footage shows off the incredible energy of their live shows.

But Everyday Sunshine also makes the point that Fishbone's strength was their biggest weakness. Their stage show was full of exuberant anarchy. They packed their albums with a melting pot of sounds. But their eclectic musical democracy and unique style made them hard for the record companies to package, which denied them access to a wider audience. This sets up the sad list of travails for the band.

From guitarist Kendall Jones' breakdown and religious rebirth (which led to kidnapping charges against Norwood Fisher) to the erosion of the original lineup, it's hard to sit through the frustration and rancor within the band. Once again, Anderson and Metzler's full access exposes pettiness and anger borne out of the band's sense of loss. Eventually, Fishbone seems to devolve into Moore and Norwood Fisher as an ersatz married couple, trying to find a balance but often slipping into bickering passive aggression.

Still, Fishbone has persevered through the stress of touring and still seem focused on working together. By the end, their characters seem familiar: Norwood Fisher's grounded sense of calm, Angelo Moore's artistic hunger, Dirty Walt Kibby II's provocative humor, and Chris Dowd's regular guy charm. Kendall Jones is more of an enigma. We see his serious side in commercial interview snippets and a lot of darkness in short archive scenes from the studio. It's hard to relate that to the shy, post-breakdown persona from more recent footage. Since Phillip "Fish" Fisher is still estranged from the band and didn't participate, we never get his perspective.

Everyday Sunshine gives a realistic view of a great band whose influence spread well beyond their own direct accomplishments. Occasionally the narrative gets confused as the editing sacrifices linear flow to make a point (when is this band member interview from?), but the film never looks away from the real humanity of the Fishbone's core.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone releases on DVD this month (21 February, pre-order here) and is available on iTunes now.

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