X like the band X, not the brand x.
X: The Unheard Music
Starring: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, D.J. Bonebrake
Directed by W.T. Morgan
By now, it’s practically a requirement for documentaries on punk bands to frame their subjects with humorous early Twentieth Century newsreel footage, clunky Reagan Era TV commercials, and other bits of disposable cultural ephemera. Thankfully the technique was relatively virgin when it was used to present X in this 1986 documentary-cum-concert film; as such, the expected beats aren’t there, making for a fun, surprising, and at times captivating viewing experience. Of course, fans of X have been saying the same things about the pulpy L.A. band’s music for years. A straightforward white-wall interview feature would have surely failed to convey the excitement or romance X projects.
An unlikely union between a grinning rockabilly kid, a pair of aspiring poets, and a shrimpy marching band drummer, X didn’t kick around their native Los Angeles too long before catching the attention of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Alas, having a living rock legend in their corner didn’t automatically bring success to X’s doorstep, and The Unheard Music compresses over half a decade struggle into one frayed cinematic scrapbook. The raw frustration of this quartet’s journey pops up primarily in the interview segments and in fact did not end once the cameras stopped rolling—guitarist Billy Zoom left the band shortly after The Unheard Music was completed, replaced by Dave Alvin from the Blasters. Yes, there’s another years-long chapter of X waiting to be covered in a sequel.
For now, we have this wonderful glance at X in their haunting beat punk prime, replete with scorching live performances, long forgotten music videos, and quirky personal segments. Of the latter, the best finds drummer D.J. Bonebrake staring at a TV and diligently plunking out famous theme songs like “Hawaii 5-O” on a xylophone seemingly as he hears them. I say “seemingly” because the film replaces the TV monitor’s live sound with snippets of a monologue in which Bonebrake declares his overriding distaste for television.
This scene is X in a nutshell. The band actively eschews tradition, but they’re so steeped in Americana via their country rock roots they just can’t help playfully flirting with what we know as cold, processed establishment. Such is their greatness, and such is this film’s greatness.
FINAL SCORE: Four grinning rockabilly kids (out of four).