The definitive MC5 documentary feature film — two hours — made a few years ago — never released.
The following article on the making of this documentary was originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 9 (March 2004) (available from The Arthur Store) when the commercial/theatrical release of this wonderful, heartbreaking film seemed imminent…
Detroit’s visionary MC5 receive a film tribute that aims to rewrite rock history
By Steffie Nelson
On New Year’s Eve, 1972, the MC5 took the stage at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, a vast psychedelic venue where they’d held court as the “house band” between 1966 and 1969. Their live shows had been so incendiary, the five band members so arrogant, that even a huge star like Janis Joplin, no slouch in the live department, once refused to go on after them. This gig, their swan song as it were, was sloppy and dispassionate; the ghosts of past glories even more unforgiving than the sparse, cynical crowd. Guitarist Wayne Kramer took off mid-performance to go cop dope, and the MC5 never played again. Kramer and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith were 22; singer Rob Tyner and drummer Dennis Thompson were 24; bassist Michael Davis was 26. In the end they’d effectively been “pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition,” which their manager John Sinclair had railed against, perhaps presciently, in the liner notes to their now-legendary debut album Kick Out The Jams.
The MC5 hold a curious place in rock history. Their ascendance represented a moment in America when art and commerce converged, when all that was vital and visceral was also the pinnacle of hip. As the flamboyant and badass musical mouthpiece of the White Panther Party, the MC5 did embody the soul of the late ‘60s counterculture: one foot in the optimistic past and the other in the disillusioned, deadly future; one hand holding a guitar, the other a shotgun. It’s an irresistible image, one which was unappetizingly co-opted by Levis last spring for a series of T-shirts. A promotional performance in London by the three surviving Five (Rob Tyner suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991; Fred Smith died of heart failure in 1994) was seen by detractors as a final, sad sellout.
The question of whether or not the MC5 failed at the end of the day is much debated in the riveting feature-length documentary MC5: A True Testimonial, directed by David Thomas and produced by Laurel Legler. All parties agree, however, that for a fleeting, incandescent moment the MC5 were “at the center of the yin-yang,” as Michael Davis philosophizes in the film, “and it was our job to keep it going in a positive direction.”
But the proverbial yin-yang was already spinning into darkness, and it took the MC5 with it. Like fireworks on the fourth of July, they rose with a bright, beautiful bang and, as far as mainstream America was concerned, disappeared with a puff of smoke into the night. They were, ultimately, sacrificial – the artistic entity that was the MC5 didn’t survive more than seven years—but their legacy has continually inspired legions of punks, rockers, artists and freaks, who got turned on to their music through word-of-mouth, or more than likely though the persistent echo of a call to arms that rings with timeless resonance: “kick out the jams, motherfucker.”
As David Thomas says, “The people who know, know. The other people don’t get it.” The Chicago-based Thomas and his wife Laurel Legler began working on MC5: A True Testimonial in 1995, spurred on through financial troubles and licensing hassles by sheer love and respect and the determination to do justice to these American legends. As Legler points out, few bands have received this sort of filmic treatment, and if they have their way MC5: A True Testimonial will revise rock history. On the eve of a limited theatrical release and the worldwide release of a nearly four-hour DVD edition of the film (including deleted scenes, complete live performances, interview outtakes and fan testimonials), David Thomas and Laurel Legler are ready to testify.