The Fearless Freaks
2005, NR, 98 min. Directed by Bradley Beesley.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 15, 2005
If you see only one film this year featuring a dramatic re-enactment (starring pre-adolescent Vietnamese children) of what it was like to be robbed at gunpoint while working at an Oklahoma City Long John Silver’s franchise in 1983, this should be it. Of course, it might also help to be a fan of OK City’s drug-drenched, psychedelic punk freakazoids the Flaming Lips, but really, this supremely bizarre Long John’s do-over is the lysergic icing on the THC cake that is the improbably fascinating Wayne Coyne and the Lips. Beesley (who directed the magnificent and equally surreal Okie Noodling a few years back) is a longtime Lips fan and follower of the group. Best known to the mainstream as the band behind the creepily addictive 1994 track "She Don’t Use Jelly," the Flaming Lips have since broken out like a bad case of post-acid acne, winning a Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance in 2003 and playing to a packed house on Austin City Limits during the 2004 season. Their music – part punk rock garage squall, part art-school happening, and, these days, at least, wholly and tunefully memorable – is a college radio staple and badge of indie-hipster street cred. It was not always thus. With their roots firmly planted in the Oklahoma City/Norman punk rock scene, early Lips shows were an eardrum-deconstructing sonic wipeout, akin to what you’d get if you gave Marshall stacks and a paisley-painted jet engine to Survival Research Laboratories’ Mark Pauline and told him to start a band or else. (Historical note: I booked the Lips to play live at a warehouse dive in Amarillo during the summer of 1986, and all I can remember about the show was that they were loud as hell, they had too much hair, and they couldn’t hold a candle to then-unknown and equally chaotic hardcore openers NOFX – these days both bands are elder statesmen of their respective scenes.) The release in 1997 of Zaireeka, a box set of four CDs meant to be played simultaneously was previewed in an Austin parking garage during that year’s SXSW. Coyne and the band gathered together a phalanx of cars arranged in a semi-oval with their respective stereos blasting out separately recorded Lips music in unison, a feat of aural inventiveness so outlandish, so unlikely, and so shockingly good that it rivaled anything that ever came out of Warhol’s Factory. From there, after signing to Warner Bros., the band only got stranger, and better, releasing a series of critically acclaimed CDs including The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Somewhere along the line they also found time to shoot an unscripted movie about a depressive Santa Claus and some martians. Strangers in bunny suits quickly followed. If that sounds like drivel to you, Beesley’s engrossing documentary is required viewing. Far from being the Butthole Surfers wannabes they were so early pigeonholed as, the Flaming Lips have matured right along with their audience and become far, far more than a simple rock & roll group. These days it’s not unheard of to see moms and dads, offspring in tow, at their heavily theatrical performances. The Fearless Freaks is the best and most intimate rock & roll documentary in ages, topping even the recent, excellent DiG!. Chock-full of archival Super-8 footage seamlessly edited into a masterful work of art that encompasses not just this crazy Okie musical outfit and their "heaven one day, hell the next" history, The Fearless Freaks also provides that rarest of documentary accomplishments: a glimpse into the artists’ sunny, dark hearts. (The Fearless Freaks had its world premiere during SXSW Film 2005.)