Rock Opera

Rock Opera

1999, NR, 87 min. Directed by Bob Ray. Starring Jerry Don Clark, Ted Jarrell, Russell Porter, Paul Wright, Chad Holt, Rob Gasper, Louis Olmeda.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 3, 1999

This bracingly sordid slice of microbudget punk-rock cinema from Super-8 maestro Bob Ray makes it clear that, despite a step up to 16mm, the Austin-based, self-taught filmmaker hasn't compromised much of the flagrantly deviant sensibility he flaunted in earlier opuses such as Night of the Kung Fu Zombie Bastards From Hell! and Cocaine Ninja. Rock Opera bubbles up from the same primordial college-town underground ooze as the starving bands/bad drugs/chronic penury lifestyle it simultaneously lampoons and celebrates. Its story is a picaresque affair dealing with the efforts of a sad-sack punk guitarist named Toe (Clark, a musician pal of Ray's and a comic actor of terrific innate gifts) to sell enough weed to bankroll a low-budget tour for his band. Much of the (exceedingly) dark humor arises from watching our benign but omni-incompetent hero screw it all up in spectacular fashion, drawing down the wrath of rival bandsmen, creditors, and psychotic drug traffickers. As a favorite son of the local punk scene, Ray knows his turf inside out. Even those who've experienced it only peripherally will get a charge out of spotting beloved Austin bands, clubs, hangouts, and personages (watch closely for cameos such as Butthole Surfer Jeff Pinkus as a doorman). Ray's writing is crude but often hilarious, and his sociological observations -- such as the phenomenon of "band houses" as the equivalent of rival feudal estates -- are astute. He's a bold, imaginative shotmaker too, with an especially good feel for scenes in which explosive, chaotic action develops slowly from ominous static situations. But if I were Ray, I'd be leery of buying too quickly into the premature lionization that seems to be part and parcel with the explosion of interest in indie cinema. He still needs to develop more of a sense of the editing room as his friend; Rock Opera contains too many redundant scenes, resulting in a movie that feels much longer than its 87 minutes. He's also a bit too enamored of "novel" camera angles -- in this case a superabundance of low-angle interior shots. And as Linklater has learned, even bohemian enfants terrible eventually face pressure to prove they can move out of their comfort zones and make movies in which none of the characters sport gas-station-attendant shirts or hemp-leaf tattoos. Although many find similarities between Ray's work and that of Slacker-vintage Richard Linklater, I believe a more analogous talent, and more appropriate, artistic benchmark, might be Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Hard Core Logo), who's enjoyed a long, meritorious career making idiosyncratic low-budget movies about compelling characters who live on the fringes by choice or circumstance. Bob Ray may or may not be the Next Big Thing out of Austin, but he's already turning out exuberantly rough-edged films that are a blast to watch. And for now that's fine by me.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Bob Ray
Hell on Wheels ... and Weed
Hell on Wheels ... and Weed
Bob Ray takes the show on the road

Marc Savlov, Aug. 13, 2010

More Bob Ray
Hey, Filmmakers! We're Number One!
Hey, Filmmakers! We're Number One!
'Moviemaker' says the 512 has opportunity, talent and affordability

Richard Whittaker, March 5, 2013

You Drink, You Drive, You Spill!
You Drink, You Drive, You Spill!
Bob Ray's PSAs for Drunk Drivers of Texas

Marc Savlov, July 30, 2012

More Bob Ray Films
Hell on Wheels

Feb. 26, 2021

Total Badass
Ray's film documents Chad Holt, who is described as a sex-addicted, magazine publishing, drug-using, music-making "renaissance man from the Austin underground."

Feb. 26, 2021

More by Russell Smith
Juwanna Mann

June 28, 2002

Wrong Numbers

June 7, 2002


Rock Opera, Bob Ray, Jerry Don Clark, Ted Jarrell, Russell Porter, Paul Wright, Chad Holt, Rob Gasper, Louis Olmeda

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle