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Movie Reviews : 'Unheard Music': On The Road With X

March 07, 1986|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Near the end of "The Unheard Music" (at the Four Star), X bassist John Doe quotes a bluesman as saying that "no man or woman knows what real trouble is in this world." Doe muses: "I always took that to mean ' 'cause it could always get worse.' "

That brooding axiom neatly illustrates X's dark, uncompromising vision, which has earned it both a permanent niche as pop cult idols and a precarious perch as a band of outsiders "locked out of the public eye."

"The Unheard Music" does its best to give us a sense of how lonely it is out there on the pop fringe. An intriguing, if erratic low-budget film that follows the L.A.-based band's career over the past five years, it offers fascinating glimpses of the group's personal mythology, home lives, rehearsal process and eclectic musical background. But despite a host of exciting performance footage and some inventive visual effects, it never really captures the band's howling energy or its eloquent, often disturbing spirit.

X spearheaded a burst of sonic creativity that has forever earned the 1977-1983 L.A. underground a permanent place in the rock history books. The film does a nice job of retracing these footsteps, having local punk pioneer Brendan Mullen conduct a comic tour of the Masque, original home for X and many other local standouts. The film makers also have concocted several impressively edited music-video sequences. For "Motel Room in My Bed," they use cheery '50s-style vacation post cards to emphasize the goofy unreality of life on the road; the film's poignant title song unfolds as a spooky travelogue as a half-wrecked house is uprooted and transported to a new locale in the dead of night.

But the film is at its best away from the stage. It's a treat to see guitarist Billy Zoom doodling on the clarinet or Doe and singer Exene Cervenka rummaging through their Hank Williams songbook, their raggedy harmonies sounding like a wee-hours version of Pancho and Lefty. Drummer D. J. Bonebrake also is a hoot showing off a complex set of polyrhythms, using the syncopated sound of his bubbling coffeepot as a timekeeper. Cervenka also is at her most affecting at home, reminiscing about her late sister (killed in a car crash while driving to an X show) in a room adorned with memories of the loss.

Unfortunately, the film loses its focus with nearly a half-hour to go, wandering off into a heavy-handed critique of the pop-making machinery that's not particularly revealing (and very dated--all the executives interviewed have long since left their jobs). It also ends on a jarringly flat note, sabotaging several raging X songs with an annoying jumble of video clutter that's almost as hilariously overwrought as anything you'd ever see on MTV.

These missteps keep this otherwise engaging effort from being a classic rock documentary. And its insular approach, never really showing us what gives this band its unbridled drive, will probably prevent the film from reaching a broader audience.

"The Unheard Music's" affection for the group is undeniable. It's just that X's best songs paint a dark, heroic dreamscape that stretches deep into our imagination, perhaps too deep for any one film to go.

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