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Woodstock Film Festival: Bad Brains: Band in DC 

Bad Brains hanging out backstage circa 1979.

Bad Brains hanging out backstage circa 1979.

The propulsive new documentary about the celebrated black punk/reggae band from our nation’s capital goes deep: It traces Bad Brains from its tenuous beginning almost three decades ago to its 2007 reunion tour, ticking off the highlights, heartbreaks, and chaos of the intervening years with a frantic pacing that approximates an amphetamine jag. The accomplishment is even more impressive when you learn that co-director Mandy Stein didn’t really know Bad Brains until five years ago.

Growing up in Manhattan, the daughter of a rock manager and the president of Sire Records, Stein was better acquainted with The Ramones (one of her mother Linda’s clients), or Talking Heads and Blondie (artists on her father Seymour’s label.)

Bad Brains, she said, was on the periphery of her teenage life—"That’s what the cool guys were skateboarding and listening to—hardcore.” (The group’s name, ironically, was lifted from a Ramones song.)

When Stein was filming the closing of the famed Bowery club CBGB in 2007, Bad Brains was one of the headliners playing the final nights. Stein dutifully filmed them. Yet when she returned to Los Angeles to review the footage, she was impressed by the veteran band’s manic energy and thought they merited their own film.
But tragedy intervened. In October, 2007, her mother, now a realtor for celebrities, was murdered in her upper Fifth Avenue apartment. Despite a 2009 premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival, Burning Down the House: The Rise and Fall of CBGB, was never released. The trial consumed the filmmaker’s life, especially after the key suspect accused her of the crime. (Linda Stein’s assistant was eventually found guilty.)

Mandy Stein and co-director Benjamen Logan began work on the Bad Brains film in February 2008. The first stop was Woodstock, where band member Gary “Dr. Know” Miller had settled after the band’s glory days, working at Sunfrost Market. Reuniting sporadically over the years, only to separate again, Bad Brains were now in "together" mode. So Stein and Logan headed to Ulster County to film the sessions.

A bit of serendipity had revived the dormant project. Bad Brains singer Paul “HR” Hudson, a notorious eccentric, had been bumming around the East Village of Manhattan. When Logan found he had no place to go, he invited him to stay in his Brooklyn apartment. During that week, HR played music and Ben would bring him fish tacos and fruit.

”There was a real trust that was established,” Stein says. As for convincing the quartet to sign onto the project, she said, “HR was very easy; other band members were more resistant.”

Stein and Logan began trailing the band, even as they pieced together archival footage to capture their auspicious rise, the joyous toking that was their credo, as well as the racism and bad luck that dogged their growing popularity. (Along the way, Stein and Logan went from artistic partners to lovers; they now have a daughter.)

Bad Brains: Band in DC is an overstuffed musical history that encompasses the '80s club scenes in both DC and New York, while assembling tribute interviews from an impressive line-up of fans: Henry Rollins, Anthony Kiedis, Beastie Boys Mike Diamond and the late Adam Yauch, Michael Franti, Dave Grohl, and Ric Ocasek.
An avalanche of vintage interviews and bootleg videos of club gigs crowd the screen. When key scenes were not documented—a frequent occurrence before video cameras—comic-book graphics fill in the storyline. The raucous illustrations, in sync with the fractured energy of the film, are the work of Rita Luxe, an artist who daylights at Mattel creating cartoons for Barbie.

As the Bad Brains film unfurls, HR’s erratic personality becomes the linchpin of the narrative. In this larger-than-life personage, equal parts mystic and clown, the directors had found gold. But that required a level of flexibility from them both as the project progressed, Stein says. “HR was always really cool with us, and obviously really open. There wasn’t a lot of directing him in any way, as you can see in the film. He really says what he wants to say and answers questions how he wants to answer them and talks about what he wants to talk. So, you just have to be really open and just let it flow to where it does and allow HR to freely be HR, which is what I think we hopefully did.”

The band’s conflicts are a recurring leitmotif; in fact, the members had been separated a decade before their first reunion. During the film, various disagreements flare and abate. Stein and Logan eventually accustomed themselves to the love-hate dynamic of the members. “This is just one cycle of the band; they’ve broken up so many times,“ Stein says. After a momentous fight during the 2007 RioFest concert, the band seems on the verge of breaking up for good. But within a year, they are back in Woodstock, grievances settled, and recording a new album.

Bad Brains: Band in DC chronicles a difficult career path for a band that, like its music, lived on the edge. But Stein feels the documentary is a celebration rather than a cautionary tale. “We didn’t shy away from the difficult stories,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom.”

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  • Jay Blotcher interviews Mandy Stein, co-director of the documentary Bad Brains: Band in DC.


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