Hailed in the Trouser Press Record Guide as "one of America's greatest and most overlooked bands," Fishbone broke out from the early 1980s club scene in Los Angeles with its raucous, high-energy mix of punk, ska, funk and straight rock. The band came up alongside acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction and is an acknowledged influence on No Doubt. Yet the broader, bigger successes of those peers escaped Fishbone.
Saturday night saw the world premiere of "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone" as part of the documentary competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler with narration by actor Laurence Fishburne, the film features interviews with members of the band as well as musicians Flea, Gwen Stefani, Branford Marsalis, Mike Watt and others.
"Fishbone's greatest strength, the diversity and variety of the music they played, was also their Achilles' heel," Metzler said before the screening. "You have six guys who all liked different sorts of music, but based on their friendship they decided to form a band. And everybody had equal say."
After the release of the 1991 album "The Reality of My Surroundings," their highest charting record, the relationships of the original six members began to fracture. After a failed intervention on guitarist Kendall Jones in 1993 led to kidnapping charges against bass player Norwood Fisher, members began to leave the group. Fisher and singer-saxophone player Angelo Moore have kept the name alive through the years, continuing to record and tour with other musicians, and original trumpet player-singer Walter Kibby II has recently rejoined the band.
That the film premiered this year as the L.A. Film Fest moved downtown (where it screens Monday and Wednesday) seems especially apt; Anderson and Metzler focus on the city as a formative part of the band's creation and worldview. Five of the original six members were bused from where they lived in South-Central to the San Fernando Valley for school, where they met Moore. The cultural and musical collision of South-Central and the Valley played a crucial role in the band's sound.
"Once we knew that school busing was so important to the genesis of the band, we went and explored Fishbone's music and realized a lot of what's been going down in Los Angles over the last 25 to 30 years influenced not just who the Fishbone guys were, but the music and art they created," said Anderson. "If you wanted to understand Fishbone, you had to understand Los Angeles."
Anderson and Metzler are careful in the film not to overemphasize the failure of the group finding more mainstream success simply to Fishbone being being an African American band in the largely white world of alternative music.
"It's about balance," said Metzler. "I think race did play a factor for them, especially when it comes to how they were treated by record labels and presented by radio stations. At the same time, there were other factors involved. It wasn't as simple as that."
Original member Chris Dowd compared Fishbone to bands such as the MC5 or Love, both of which proved influential in the long term but were not widely recognized in their own time. He acknowledged that the forces that held Fishbone back were as much internal as external.
"We were the most uncompromising people ever," Dowd said.
After the screening Saturday night, Fisher, Dowd and Kibby took to a stage in a tent atop a parking garage in the shadow of Staples Center to play an acoustic set. Tucked into a little corner of downtown, the trio seemed to have set aside their differences to celebrate what Fishbone has always been most about — music, fun and friendship.
"Have you ever seen the movie 'Putney Swope'?" Dowd asked before the screening, referring to the 1969 advertising-industry satire from which the band drew the name of its 1988 album, "Truth and Soul." "At the end, they get all that money and then what do they do? They burned it up. That is the best analogy to describe Fishbone."