Let Them Eat Rock

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/30/06 20:48:32

"The best rockumentary of the 18th century."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: How can you tell that Boston/Cambridge is an academically-oriented town? Well, there's the way the population swells by around half a million people when school is in session, but how many other places would give rise to a band like The Upper Crust - a serviceable enough group of hard rockers that take the stage in pantaloons, make-up, and powdered wigs to sing about the travails of being idle English gentlemen in the mid-eighteenth century? You get novelty acts everywhere, but seldom ones as relatively popular and nerdy.

We meet the band in 1995, as they're just starting to break out. At the moment, they're playing venues like The Middle East in Cambridge, but in a few weeks they're booked for an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The middle section deliberately recalls A Hard Day's Night, as the band members get ready for their big show. But first, we've got to get to know the members, and they're an interestingly diverse group.

For instance, guitarist Ted Widmer (or, as he's known onstage, "Lord Rockingham") is teaching an American History seminar at Harvard. His old apartment is now used as an office, filled from top to bottom with history books and old records. He points out that the song on an old LP is, at two minutes thirty-nine seconds, about thirty-nine seconds too long to be a great rock song, and breaks out an acoustical guitar to do a song about Abraham Lincoln. Bassist Marc "Mazz" Mazzarelli ("Marquis du Roque") is another highly skilled professional, an architect with a downtown Boston firm whose wife is expecting a baby any time now. Conversely, Dave Fredette ("Duc D'Istortion") and Jim Janota ("Jackie Kickassis") spend their days delivering bread and minding the counter at the Boston Book Annex. Jim seems pretty content with his life, while Dave's crankier, in part due to his back that needs chiropractic attention every morning. And, finally, there's the band's leader, Nat Freedberg ("Lord Bendover"), a "gentleman of leisure" whose twin passions are the band and his pet black pig (aptly named "Pig" and about six feet long from snout to tail).

It's a fun group, pretty functional for a rock band worthy of a documentary, with Ted and Nat especially coming across as outgoing folks who are likely to say something funny at any minute. I don't know if Nat's song "Reach-around" has appeared on any of the band's albums, but it cracked the audience up. Filmmaker Rodman Flender (credited with editing, photographing, producing, and directing the movie) has a knack for good juxtaposition - the jump back from Dave hurting at the chiropractor to doing one of those big windmill strokes at The Middle East the night before is a nice cut, and the difference between the dressing room at the tiny New York club they play the night before going on Conan and the NBC green room (with flowers waiting from a label) is the perfect point of hitting the big time.

If the movie had stopped there, it would have been a fun little trifle, but Flender throws a "Five Years Later" at us that shows us that the band's status changed in ways that are both typical and unique. Ted and Mazz are no longer with the group; taking a band to the next level of success isn't really compatible with a full-time job. Mazz is replaced on bass by Chris Cote ("Count Bassie"), who ran the failed label that released the band's first album. The really bizarre story stems out of Ted's next job as an advisor to President Clinton on foreign affairs. The Enquirer finds pictures of Ted made up as Lord Rockingham, leading to the FBI opening an investigation that has Jim hiding his weed and Ted commenting that he was probably the first person that the federal government had investigated as a possible monarchist in two hundred years.

That five-year gap indicates what a clear labor of love this is for Flender, and his horror movie/television background serves him well in shooting a low-budget documentary; he knows how to set up and shoot quickly while still looking professional. That's not to say the film isn't a little rough around the edges; the footage of the group performing on Conan is exciting and funny but also serves to highlight just how not-great the sound and lighting in previous segments was. As many laughs as the last act adds to the movie, it is very talking-head driven, although the people doing the talking and the skillful cutting make up for it. He's also pretty good at painting Ted and Nat as guys pulling the band in different directions without hitting the audience over the head with it.

This got a big turnout at BUFF for being local, and I know I got a kick out of they "hey, I've eaten there, too!" factor. But I think it could travel well; the musicians are an appealing blend of everyman and extraordinary, and the specific details differentiate it from every other "unsigned indie rock band" picture.

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