By certain preconceived notions, Died Young, Stayed Pretty, Eileen Yaghoobian's documentary on rock posters, shouldn't work as well as it does.
It skips around merrily from city to city, artist to artist, and era to era. It hopscotches from a careful consideration of the underappreciated artistic merits of underground artists to an examination of pop culture debris to the impossibility of making a living as a poster artist to hilarious, off-the-cuff remarks by good-hearted people who have no idea -- or no concern -- about filtering their comments for public consumption. (Sample: 'Growing up, I wanted to be a terrorist. Not the bad kind, not to hurt people, like the word is used today. I just wanted to terrorize the neighborhood. That kind of terrorist.') In short, it's a mad collage of genuine originals who have been under the radar so long that the bounds of propriety have disappeared.
Kind of like the posters it celebrates.
The film, which had its US Premiere yesterday, screens at SXSW again on Wednesday, March 18. A DVD release is coming next month, and if you have any interest in the indie rock scene, poster art, underground radicalism, or good docs, you're well advised to check it out.
Mark Greenberg's musical score is immediately arresting, which provides an easy entry point to the doc itself. Yaghoobian spent four years shooting the film, traveling throughout the US and Canada to talk to the restless souls who created hundreds of dazzling flyers and posters, sometimes (often?) without the knowledge or prior consent of the musicians whose shows they were helping to advertise.
Of course, they weren't doing it to "advertise" in the corporate sense. One artist even questions whether the flyers he created ever resulted in additional ticket sales for the bands. For many of the artists, it was a way to express themselves cheaply and to comment in public on politics and culture. One artist remembers someone stapling flyers onto telephone poles and walls for the San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys, which were promptly ripped down by people offended by the name of the band.
Many posters and flyers featured provocative imagery, a toxic mix of written obscenities and pornographic pictures, cobbled together via the silkscreen process and/or Xerox machines. A poster that blended into the background would be useless; the idea was to grab someone's eye in a split second, or to provide some kind of graphic interpretation of the rock band's music or reputation.
Yaghoobian has a great eye herself. Although the doc showcases far more posters and flyers than I could count, she must have edited that footage down to the cream of the crop.
And in the same way that her camera glides up and down and around the printed art work, she glides in and out and around her interview subjects, a motlew crew who prove to be terribly endearing even as they demonstrate their fierce, stubborn independence from mainstream popular culture. They don't want to be "accepted by society," whatever that really means. They prefer to fire things up, disturb people, outrage, disgust, thrill, amaze, shock.
Died Young, Stayed Pretty made me want to seek out the art on display. Strictly as a documentary, it made me want to watch it again, just to soak it all in.