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Movie Review: Half-Cocked

Movie poster featuring an indie rock band

Half-Cocked is the definitive early ’90s indie rock film. Which is great because it doesn’t seem like anybody else ever bothered to make one.

The time in which the movie was produced — and it’s finally being released on DVD, which is why I’m writing about it now — I wasn’t in a band, but I lived with a guy who was. (Hi, Joe!) They were called Fieldfresh and they totally rocked. Joe would have townhouse parties at our on-campus complex where they and other punk bands from the Rochester, NY area would play, as well as playing at different bars and other houses. We’d all hang out and it seemed like everyone had two or three artistic pursuits. I was a film student and wrote morose, solipsistic poetry. And we’d just produce whatever it was that was inside us that needed spitting out to relieve our angst about the world and hopefully just to entertain and amuse each other.

Half-Cocked captures this sense of artistic, alienated camaraderie perfectly. Directed by Suki Hawley and co-written with and shot by Michael Galinsky, the film is not a documentary, but is a fictional story starring real life indie rock musicians, many playing either themselves or characters based on themselves. The film also has a very loose plot structure, in fact about a quarter of the film goes by before you realize that there is actually going to be a plot, so it plays very much like a documentary about some friends just hanging out.

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Thank god it has such a simple storyline. Too much plot and the film would have come off as contrived. Too little and it would have become an indie rock jerk-off fest. What we end up with is the movie all of us in our little towns’ music scenes should have made, but it’s good that we didn’t because our efforts would have sucked compared with Hawley and Galinsky’s right-on piece of genius.

The story, such that it is, centers around Tara Jane, a Louisville, KY female slacker, who works as a cashier in a movie theater and lives with a bunch of other nogoodniks. Her only creative outlet is a mini-tape recorder into which she pours her anxious, troubled soul into. Her older brother, played by the scene-stealing Ian Svenonius, sings in a band. (The Make-Up subbing as a group called the Guilloteens.) When the opportunity arises, Tara Jane steals the band’s van and drives across the south with her friends, who pretend to be a rock band themselves despite none of them knowing how to play any instruments.

For the most part the film plays as comedy as the faux-rocksters finagle their way into different shows and various awkward situations. Svenonius, in the few scenes he appears, is a downright scream. But luckily the antics on-screen don’t devolve into simple goofball posturing. As the fake band slowly realizes they need to sing not only for their supper (literally), but for their own self-satisfaction, the film gains a real heart. It would be tough for anyone who ever experienced that same creative waywardness to not immediately identify with Tara Jane and her rogue group.

It also goes without saying (but I will anyway) that Half-Cocked has a totally rockin’ soundtrack featuring the music of Sleepyhead (Galinsky’s band), The Grifters, Rodan, Polvo, Retsin, Versus, Slant 6, many more and, my personal favorite, Unwound.

The new DVD release of Half-Cocked comes with Hawley and Galinsky’s second feature, Radiation, an interesting follow-up that covers the seedier side of the indie rock scene. Filmed as far away from Half-Cocked‘s Southern roots as possible, a Spanish concert promoter, Unai, deals drugs on the side since the bands he promotes aren’t big moneymakers. When the band Come (starring as themselves) visits Spain and fails to draw big crowds, Unai stiffs his supplier and hits the road on an improbable trip promoting an avant garde performance artist.

Again filmed in a quasi-documentary style, although this time in color, Radiation has a good feel for having perfectly captured a very specific moment in time. It’s not the definitive statement that Hawley and Galinsky’s first film is; and clocking at 60 minutes to Half-Cocked‘s 80, it feels more like a short than a full feature. So, it was probably a good idea to bundle the films together rather than release them separately. It’s a terrific companion film and would have just needed a little bit more fleshing out in the story to be a fully satisfying feature on it’s own.

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