by Lee Hazell
“Somewhere down the road, Rock and Roll was hijacked by a bunch of musicians.” This is the philosophy of Skum. Read it, re-read it, memorize it. It will help the 77 minutes it takes to watch Skum Rocks! make a lot more sense. Skum were a punk band of loose definition made from the members of the William & Mary varsity soccer team. Starting their careers playing the student parties of their classmates at their college in Virginia, Skum set the scene for their future in the music business by making the entry fee for their parties consuming two shots at the door.
Their parties became so notoriously wild people started crossing the country or even the borders just to be a part of one of their nights. The parties turned into gigs and the gigs turned into professional shows, the first few of which were ended by police shutdown. Their reputation grew, their fan base became rabid and the PR machine that propelled them was fuelled by nothing other than their own determination and self-confidence. Theirs was the American dream made real.
Only one problem. They had no idea how to play their instruments. Skum loved the idea of becoming Rockstars far more than they loved the idea of becoming musicians. They wanted the girls, the fame, the lifestyle but none of the hard work that came from mastering guitars and commanding drums. All of the shows they played back in the 80’s? They only ever played one full song. The shots at the door? If you were drunk when the show started you wouldn’t notice the band couldn’t play. The police that came to their concerts? They were called by the band themselves who needed to get the hell out of dodge before they were required to play another tune.
The guitarist Hart Bauer even described it as the greatest marketing move they ever made. An anarchic punk outfit dragged kicking and screaming by the local authority? After just one song? How punk is that? This exemplifies the idea behind Skum. That music was never the important part to a great rock and roll band. The experience of seeing them live, the theatrics on stage, the shenanigans off and the headlines in the paper the next day; they were all the important bits.
The film documenting their rise and fall begins with a confession by the documentary makers that upon taking this assignment they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. This fades into a mischievous looking Alice Cooper, grin on his face and glint in his eye, saying that does he have a story for us. Immediately we are engaged. Tell us more oh hallowed rock god. Tell us of these strange days and drunken minstrels.
What proceeds is one of the most shocking, funny and outrageous documentaries I have ever seen. The way the film builds the story of the band in a straight shooting almost “Behind the Music” like fashion, only to waylay you with the truth once the band has been legitimised in your head.
The stories, backed up by archive footage, are a parade of unbelievable anecdotes that play buckaroo with your suspension of disbelief. Talking to my fellow patrons after the show each of us had a different point in the movie where we simply ceased to believe the film to be anything other than farce. These moments ranged from the opening five seconds to the end credit sequence. Personally the moment that had me thinking I was looking at one long con involved a made up publicist from Kingston. You can’t believe anyone would have the gall to get away with this shit, or the stupidity to believe it.
The film is made all the funnier by the director’s immaculate sense of comic timing. I thought this must be the way my elders felt like discovering This is Spinal Tap for the first time. Events almost feel scripted but the authenticity of the period detail and the fact that they are clearly not actors force you to accept the reality that the events are real. But while the editing may lead you to question the authenticity, it also raises the level of intrigue. What puts this film over the edge is that you are constantly trying to figure it out. It will leave with questions you will spend the next two weeks trying to answer.
But for all the bravado and deception, at the heart of the film is a strange core of optimism and a message of self belief. The band never had any reason to think they could make it as far as they did, but they went for it anyway. They ended up with a record deal and a series of sold out shows. It’s heart-warming in its own way. It’s a theme so strong it even permeates the way the film was made. Looking at the endless parade of celebrities the film showcases throughout you never really believe any of them have ever heard of the band, yet there they are talking to camera about them, bigging up their names and legitimising their reputation. This is a film all about blagging and blagging is how the bulk of the film was made. Even when the shit hits the fan you never hear a word about regret and nothing can wipe the smiles off their faces.
Skum Rocks! looks like it was as much fun to make as it was to watch. Even if you’re never quite sure what is going on, whether too believe its crazy delusions or dismiss it as a sham, you can’t ever be persuaded to disengage from the ride. Skum Rocks! is never laughing at you but encouraging you to laugh along with it.