Monday, July 12, 2004

Its!!! The Unsatisfied!

I don't know where they got the title "Ambition Withdraw"-- the filmmaker says it means "a force to rock, a form of mental illness"--but this little movie out of Chattanooga is so good that it receives my highest compliment: I have no idea exactly what it is.
It's part documentary, part dream vision, part music video, part goofy late-night horror-host commentary, and it's packed with hard-driving wild-as-a-bat southern punk rock by the greatest band you've never heard of, The Unsatisfied.
The movie includes fifteen years of footage--although most of it was shot during the past two years--and it tells the story of one of those desperate-to-make-it bands that never makes it but keeps going because the band members eventually decide it would be impossible not to, because it's the only thing that makes them feel fully alive. The lead singer, Eric Scealf, makes himself up like a lipsticked mascara-ed bodybuilder hillbilly who's a sort of cross between Ichabod Crane and Eric Rudolph, and then he goes berserk on stage singing acrobatically about dead- end lives and cursed destinies.
In real life, Scealf is a father of two, married for 12 years, who lives in the little town of Cleveland, Tennessee, and takes care of wolves in a wildlife habitat for a living. The five-member band plays in half-empty bars that don't pay them enough money to cover their expenses, and they waste years fighting various demons, notably alcohol, but there's a certain purity about the way they attack their music that results in a regional reputation and something approaching godhead among the people who know them personally.
The film was directed and produced by Jason Eustice, a filmmaker from the Chattanooga suburb of Hixson who has won several awards for music videos and on-the-cheap features, but this one is a quirky masterpiece. The only thing that doesn't work about it is the "Dr. Gangrene" horror-host framing device, which is too over-the-top for the raw reality of the concert footage and the straight-to-camera interviews as band members go about their daily lives of mowing lawns, dealing with crying children, working a liquor distribution route, or playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs over and over again at roadhouses packed with drunk rednecks.
As Tennessee hometown boys, they could be anybody. You wouldn't really notice them if they happened to be sitting at the next bar stool. But when they play, the intensity is amazing, and the theatrics of Scealf are electrifying. The band goes through quite a few stages in 15 years--from big hair to full makeup to just a little lipliner and gender-confused showing off--but the music stays hard-edged, raw and massively unsettling. They don't do shows so much as psychodramas.
"I think the music's cursed me," says Scealf at one point, as he lifts weights and reminisces about the neighbor who dressed him up as Liza Minnelli when he was a little boy, "but I think it's also saved me."
One of the most revealing moments occurs when the band is loading up an old van for a gig in Nashville, and someone asks Scealf if he's ever played Nashville before. Yes, he says. And what was it like? "Empty," he says, with a wry grin. Then a frown crosses his face and he feels like he has to explain. "You do it for yourself," he says. "You do it to nurture your soul. You do it cause you have to do it."
At other times, though, he talks about the "reality" of what they're doing, part of what he calls "Celtic culture"--which is definitely alive in those mountains of East Tennessee--and the troubadour tradition. "Every fucking bit of it is fucking real," he says. "It's not fun, and it wasn't supposed to be. Scar! It's a scar! If you are disillusioned, you are my crowd, my people."
One of the most poignant parts of the movie involves drummer Dave Shenk, who has a better job than everyone else and a bigger house--and a drinking problem. When he doesn't show up for "practice" one too many times, they have to get rid of him, but it rips everyone's heart out.
I would have liked more music in the movie. You just get a taste of what the band is capable of, and it makes your hair stand on end. There's an urgency to it, and a surrender. "We're done with trying to candy-coat it," says Scealf in an interview with Chattanooga deejay Plasmaboy. Cut to the next show, where the shirtless wild-eyed troubadour of Appalachia is screaming, "I'm gonna kill myself now for this much [putting his thumb and forefinger together] fucking recognition from you people."

And he does. For the sound of one hand clapping.

You gotta see this one. It's about artists.

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