There are boring concert films, there are fun concert films, and there are concert films that only fans of that particular band could ever enjoy. Urgh! A Music War is none of the above. It’s a fascinating, unique, and thank-god-somebody-captured-this piece of cultural history- specifically, the history of New Wave music- which you might not have known mattered until now. It’s hard for me to imagine someone not being won over by the outlandish, anything-goes energy that this movement brought us, combining the raw energetic power of rock n’ roll, the theatricality of glam, and the minimalist DIY aesthetic of punk music into one amazing dish. Four decades later, today’s indie rock bands are still blatantly mining these acts without shame.
What never stops amazing me about the 34 acts on display is how cohesively they all fit together, in both the quality of their performances and their styles. It’s like a creature with 34 distinct faces, sharing one singular heart and an amazing set of lungs. Some of these faces are big commercial acts: The Police. Joan Jett. Others you will never hear of again, outside of this film: Invisible Sex winning that prize easily (this is their only filmed public performance, as far as we know.) Some are political pioneers (Dead Kennedys) and others, like the great Gary Numan (driving around the stage in his little prop bumper car) are masters of cold, detached theater. There’s music hipster greats, like Devo and Pere Ubu, underrated greats like Toyah Wilcox, and quirky one-hit-wonders like Wall of Voodoo. All of them turn in equally great performances.
No small part of this is director Derek Burbidge’s fly-on-the-wall approach: no narration, no cutesy backstage filler in between sets- just one three-minute song after another, boom boom boom, all the way through. Watching a young Andy Partridge command the audience through Burbidge’s many close ups (especially in light of the crippling stage fright that later turned XTC into a studio-only-band) or Klaus Nomi do his alien cabaret routine, Mickey Mouse gloves and all, is gripping… but hell, everyone is gripping: the Go-Gos, Oingo Boingo, X… Steel Pulse singing about the KKK while in hooded costume… even reggae-lite UB40 turns in a solid performance. Who knew?
The full lineup is here for your perusal, where you might notice that the Police bookend the film with three complete songs. That’s because Stewart Copeland’s brother, Miles, produced the film and is cheekily pimping his band to sell more IRS records. But even that blatant move doesn’t detract from the film, as it forever captures a pre-tantric Sting, back when his talent still outsized his ego. Packing 34 different acts into a single film is a sure-fire way to damn that film into copyright limbo for all of eternity, so grab it here while you can. Play loud, play often.
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