From the buzzed-about Amy Winehouse documentary to a steady slew of straight-to-video projects, most music documentaries resolve their subjects' histories as either bright triumphs or back-to-black tragedies. Accordingly, "Revenge of the Mekons" is steeped in history, tracing the creative life of a critically adored, commercially doomed trans-Atlantic folk-punk band formed by leftist art students from the University of Leeds in 1977. But the film starts and finishes with the eight current members making new music in the present moment, 2010, when independent filmmaker Joe Angio finished an initial two years of shooting. Along the way, it weaves through four prolific roller coaster decades as the Mekons battle history's final judgment to an inconclusive draw, with uncanny if unsteady grace.
That uncanny spirit now follows "Revenge of the Mekons" to its Boston premiere. Before becoming nationally available for streaming and DVD purchase on July 28, the movie will begin the final leg of a five-month run of selective screenings with a run at the Brattle Theatre this weekend. As if in a perfectly scripted coda, on July 25 the Mekons will perform a rare, sold-out show in the small upstairs room at the Middle East, two days after recording a new live album before 75 fans at a club in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
"How does a band survive — we're now knocking on the door of 38 years — when they've never enjoyed any success, certainly by the conventional definition of what success means?" Angio asks over his iPhone as he sits at his dining room table in Brooklyn. "Not only how did they do that, but, more importantly, why did they bother? Because they all have to make a living off of other things to keep this passion project of theirs going. Those were the questions that interested me more than rock's standard this-is-the-best-band-that-you've-never-heard-about, you know?"
If the Mekons didn't also rank among rock's great, undiscovered gems, however, the movie would be little more than a study of obsessive-compulsive group delusion — and Angio admits that convincing newcomers of the band's worth was among his own obsessive-compulsive goals. In total, the project took six years to complete. The 55-year-old filmmaker worked mostly alone between regular stints as a magazine editor, raising much of the film's high-five-figure budget on Kickstarter.
Filled with selections from the Mekons' huge and varied musical catalog, and effectively capturing the enormous charisma of the band's live performances, "Revenge of the Mekons" includes talking-head testimonials from rock critics, younger musicians, and artists as diverse as writer Jonathan Franzen ("The Corrections"), filmmaker Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol"), and comedian-musician Fred Armisen ("Portlandia" and "Saturday Night Live" — and ex-husband to the Mekons' Sally Timms).
Partly, the Mekons earn their praise by pretending not to believe it, cultivating the myth of their own insignificance even while their most galvanizing music contradicts it. This dialectical dodge continues in the group's wary assessment of Angio's documentary.
"It's insane," says Mekons drummer Stephen Goulding in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. "I mean, what a waste of that person's time. He spent five years, at least, following us around with his camera. Poor Joe —
By necessity, this introduction underplays many aspects of the band's story, including the group's ongoing political alienation and rage — and the inevitable contradictions in that stance. (As Goulding admits, his life as a househusband is supported by his wife's job at J.P. Morgan). As the movie circles around the recording of "Ancient & Modern 1911–2011," the band's infectious warmth undercuts the forlorn mood of the largely acoustic recording that resulted.
"[That album] was about the descent into the horrors of the modern world, you know?" says Mekons singer and guitarist Jon Langford by phone from his home in Chicago. On their next album, the Mekons plan to attack those horrors at a higher pitch of urgency.
Langford credits the film with boosting the band's profile, allowing the Mekons to finance the writing and recording of a new project on tour proceeds alone. The process started last week with a writing spree at a friend's beach house on Lake Michigan, and concludes next week with the live recording in Red Hook.
"The stuff I hear on the radio seems to just be pandering," Langford says. "It's like people chasing after some holy grail of mediocrity. For me now, it's like, what does it matter? Does the world need another band that can write a song that sounds nice? You know, we might as well be extreme. So, that's the plan for the Mekons at the moment."
In short, the history books can wait.