Watch ‘Revenge of the Mekons’ For A Lesson in Principled Perseverance
“Success is the thing that kills bands in the end,” chuckles Mekons singer Sally Timms in the documentary Revenge of the Mekons. “We haven’t had any success. We’ve had none of the attendant problems.”
One mark of an effective documentary is not only its ability to newly illuminate a subject for those already familiar with it, but to the extent which it engages someone not familiar with the subject. Longtime fans of cult band and critical darlings the Mekons (still going strong after thirty years, having earned only the faintest nod of mainstream acknowledgment in all that time) will likely be in fan boy bliss watching Revenge.
Without devolving into hagiography, it shows the British band to be as cool as you’d wish: lots of self-deprecating humor from the collective, a palpable sense of respect and affection between the members, and a steadfast belief in the leftist politics that sparked their music when they were starting out as an art-school punk outfit. At the same time, the viewer is treated to the un-glamorous realities of a still-struggling band: gigs cancelled due to poor ticket sales; being your own roadie; traveling in cramped vans.
But we also get to see thrilling examples of their creative processes, from songwriting sessions to rehearsing for performances. Thanks to the members’ varied personalities, and deft editing, these are some of the most engrossing parts of the film, which was directed by Joe Angio. And there is, of course, lots of fantastic performance footage – a highlight of which is watching lead singer Jon Langford, tongue firmly in cheek, channel his inner sex god during one performance.
What gives the film its considerable resonance, though, is the way the band firmly embodies its political beliefs, including their lack of self-pity about what those beliefs and principles have cost them. Facile gestures of rebellion and the espousing of faux-radical politics are mainstays of the contemporary music landscape. But the Mekons, born at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s political reign in Britain and witness to the brutal fallout of rightwing rhetoric and political practices, have never compromised their lyrics or their sound.
The steady evolution of both is mapped out in the film, from the artless songwriting and musicianship of their punk days, to their current genre-busting style, which owes much to the influence of British folk and vintage American country music. As great as it is to have the band speak for themselves, it’s a real thrill to see some of their most ardent fans (including Timms’ ex-husband, Fred Armisen) describe what the band means to them.
“Essentially,” says novelist Jonathan Franzen, “these are depressive people singing about how shitty the world is…. They consistently resolve what ought to have been rage and despair into humor – without losing the rage and despair.”
To which writer Luc Sante adds, “The Mekons have persevered, realizing that remaining true to whatever it is you stand for is a lot more important than success. You can find ways to keep eating while you have to do stuff, but transforming yourself into a commodity is never the way to go.”
For upcoming screenings, go HERE.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.