From Revolution to Entertainment in We Are Fugazi From Washington, D.C.
Chronicle writer Joe Gross goes documentarian for the hardcore pioneers
"The danger of documentaries is always: archive, archive, talking head," says Joe Gross, journalist, music historian, Chronicle contributor, and part of the trio of filmmakers responsible for We Are Fugazi From Washington, D.C., playing as part of the Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival. "Something that I love about this movie – and I don't mean this in a braggy way, I mean it literally – is that we avoided that."
This would be crucial to any film about visceral Nineties art-punk powerhouse Fugazi – singer/guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, bassist Joe Lally, and drummer Brendan Canty. They never utilized standard methodologies, period. They transformed hardcore the way post-punk did punk, by expanding its musical remit: introducing dub and jazz elements, avoiding ballistic tempos, indulging new rhythms and extreme, whisper-to-scream dynamic shifts.
They revolutionized musical business ethics and methodology. As punk went mainstream with alternative rock's rise, Fugazi shows remained resolutely all-ages, with $5 admission even as their popularity grew. They remained self-managed and -booked, recorded for independent Dischord Records, sold no merch, and refused interviews with publications that accepted tobacco or other poisonous corporate advertising. They never exactly "broke up," per se. Playing their final show in London on November 4, 2002, they've been on hiatus since. They get together to play privately and pursue individual solo projects.
Hence, any documentary about such an unconventional subject itself required an unconventional approach.
Filmmakers Jeff Krulik (Heavy Metal Parking Lot) and Joseph Pattisall (The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan) sought Gross (formerly of the Austin American-Statesman) for this project because he literally wrote the book on Fugazi – the 33⅓ series volume on their 1993 album, In on The Kill Taker.
Born in 1974 and raised on what he has called the Virginia side of D.C., Gross was too young to fully grasp the pioneering punk bands from which Fugazi evolved (MacKaye founded hardcore legends Minor Threat, who inspired Lally to play bass, while Canty and Picciotto were in proto-emo outfit Rites of Spring). However, he immediately comprehended the importance of Fugazi's 1989 EP Margin Walker. "I remember going to Olsson's Records downtown, the Metro Center location, and they had an entire wall that was just that EP," he explains. "I was like, 'All right, this is a big deal.'"
When initiating We Are Fugazi, Krulik envisioned a quick-and-dirty mash-up of YouTube clips, celebrating the 20th anniversary of their hiatus. "When we contacted Ian, he said, 'Wonderful – I don't want to have anything to do with this,'" Gross adds.
Then MacKaye had some ideas.
He gave the filmmakers access to his video archive, built from years of fans filming and videotaping Fugazi shows and sending him copies: But he determined the film must honor the filmmakers who shot the original footage, interviewing them. Only one interview with the band is included: a vintage video magazine MacKaye conversation. The resultant film, assembled in approximately two months, is stunning, particularly a Woodstock-like split-screen sequence from a legendary gig before the Washington Monument. Or the way it starts with "Song #1" at an early gig and ends with a 2002 reprise.
"The first time you see it, the whole audience is jumping up and down and feeding back energy to the band," enthuses Gross. "When you see it at the end, it's them feeding a kind of sedentary audience that energy. It's really interesting. It's like, 'Well, I guess this is where this kind of music ended up.'
"Fifteen years earlier, it was life-changing," concludes Gross. "Fifteen years later, it was entertainment."
We Are Fugazi From Washington, D.C.Fri., Dec. 8, 9:15pm
AFS Cinema, 6259 Middle Fiskville. $15.
Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival ATX 2023Dec. 6-10