Back when Todd and I were in college he had convinced the rest of our classmates that he was of the intellectual artsy kind and got himself elected as our Creative Arts Chair. At that time no one was on par with him when it came to knowing the music scene within that faith based community. So what did Todd do? Found the nearest tour with some of the best bands around at the time and brought them to Toronto. How much did that take of his annual budget? Oh, all of it. How many people showed up? Oh, a handful.
Other than blowing an annual arts budget on a one night concert in front of a throng of a couple dozen fans the one thing that sticks with me to this day was seeing these band members chilling out in empty dorm rooms. Completely ignorant to the way of life of a musician I was expecting something... better for them. After all, these bands played in arenas in front of thousands at some shows. But here they were, lying on mattresses on rickety bed frames writing letters to their wives, and or, girlfriends. Some of these guys were, dare I say given the context, icons in that faith based music industry. Something didn't seem right. I was witnessing first hand the glorious life of the touring musician.
Then sometime after school I began listening to a local radio personality Alan Cross and his show The Ongoing History of New Music and his shows opened my mind and ears to music's depth and reach around this world of ours. He also had a show or two about the life of musicians, making it big, signing with labels and making big money. Or so we are led to believe. So when it comes to being a musician and living it big I may only know the A, D, C and Em chords on a guitar but I think I have a pretty clear idea of how tough it was/is for musicians to break into the scene, make it big, and keep it big after they sign on to a major label.
Along comes Canadian filmmaker Justin McConnell's documentary Working Class Rock Star and this is now a great visual accompaniment to everything I heard on the radio. Simplistic in its execution Justin followed three rock/metal bands; Bloodshoteye, Tub Ring and 3 Mile Scream and their efforts to rise to musical stardom and sign on with a label. But as simple as McConnell approaches making this film we discover soon enough that getting discovered and signed isn't so simplistic. Some bands will go for years sending out hundreds of press kits, touring endlessly, manning their own merchandise tables, driving hours to the recording studio and spending any other spare moments on the phones trying to drum up interest in their band. All the while they are balancing shows with school, jobs to pay the bills and their families.
At no time does McConnell attempt to preach to the masses, as if he had all the answers. Instead he lets the artists and musicians do the talking, lets them lay out their frustrations, hopes and fears. And that could have very well been the hang up here except the subjects of his doc are interesting enough and he shows more than just their musician side to draw us closer to them. We have the boyfriend and girlfriend from Bloodshoteye, he works in auto parts manufacturing [maybe? still?] and she in a nursing home. We have the lead singer of the metal band 3 Mile Scream who is studying to be a teacher. Then there is the lead singer of the progressive band Tub Ring who'd rather spend $30,000 to $40,000 cutting a new album rather than spend it on a new car like his friends are doing. They all want to make music their life. Music is how they want to make ends meet.
McConnell adds instant credibility to his cast with the addition of established artists like Randall Blyth from Lamb of God, Dave Brockie from GWAR and Frank Marino from old school Canadian rock band Mohagany Rush. All three veterans of the music industry, none of them are afraid to pull their punches and give honest accounts of the ways of the industry- like village elders passing on words of wisdom to their youth. McConnell includes an impressive array of artists and musicians who also lend their voice as well. As impressive as that is I would also have appreciated a history lesson of sorts. If McConnell could have gone into music history and given us an example or two of bands on the verge of making it big or doing so then crashing dramatically and disappearing into the ether the pining of his merry band of... uh... bands wouldn't be just that. It's not a huge misstep but I felt that something like that would only have helped get the message across.
Another misgiving I have about WCRS is that it comes across just a touch behind the times. Again, this isn't a huge fault of the film and no fault of McConnell's at all. In the last couple years alone the music industry has undergone big change especially in regards to its adaption and acceptance to the digital age. But then again the music industry has been especially slow catching up to the times. Frank Marino's speech about digital releasing feels especially dated now that we have witnessed the rise of services like iTunes and a band like Nine Inch Nails digitally releasing Ghosts I–IV back in February and The Slip in May and a band like Coldplay who sold a quarter of its 2 million copies of Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends online becoming the most downloaded album ever. At the time that McConnell was filming this Marino's words would have seemed prophetic. Now, not so much. But that is the rub about filming interviews over a two year period. So much can and has happened in that short period of time.
McConnell gets honest opinions and emotions from not only the three bands in focus in his film but everyone that he includes in his film. That cannot be easy to accomplish, this kind of honesty from everyone he interviews. That is an incredible amount of trust in the filmmaker, after all their opinions are going out there for the masses, including the people who've signed them, and in spirit of the film, own their musical asses. But this is of course in the spirit of the music, being the bad ass. As the advent of the music age is showing us perhaps bands like this won't need the labels anymore so who cares what they say?
Technically the film is good. It follows a simple story structure and shows all three bands in live performances, at home with their families and at work promoting their bands. It is a full and wide look at life as an aspiring professional musician. McConnell employs hand held filmmaking and it is still easy on the eyes. I often get worried about hand held stuff but it looks good here. And I love Rob Kleiner's original music. It added a fun, quirky and whimsical touch to McConnell's film. A nice juxtaposition to the 'chiggy chugga' of metal, a sense of a fairy tale that is about to be smashed wide open.
So while the 'chiggy chugga' of metal and rock music will not be of the taste of all viewers [shame on you] the lessons learned here still apply in any other genre of music. This is essential viewing for anyone in a band who is looking to make this their living, their way of life, and hope to survive on record and merch sales alone.