Fearless Freaks – Movie Review (***)

(Originally posted on i-Pocalypse.com on 6-6-05)

The Flaming Lips are a bit of an odd man out group in the music world. They are one of those groups that have literally been around forever (since 1983) in one form or another. Fearless Freaks, a documentary by Bradley Beesley, follows the group from their youth through the various incarnations of the group to their signing with Warner Bros in ’91 through to the release of their CD Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

The focus of the film ends up primarily on Wayne Coyne, one of the founders of the band, Michael Ivins, the perrenial bassist of the group, and Steven Drozd, who joined in the late 80’s as the new drummer. I really, really wanted to love this movie. It has been a week since I saw it and I have spent the entire week trying to rationalize an overtly positive review, but I don’t think I can do that in good conscience. It has all the ingredients needed to give us an unusual and intimate look into an overachieving group of would be musicians, but after all is said and done, it shies away from true intimacy and from any real insight into what drives them to overachieve the way they have. There are moments of just pure “Wow”, but in the big picture view it just doesn’t deliver on its promise.

The title “Fearless Freaks” apparently comes from an early incarnation of the band that started off as a semi-organized group of family and friends that would get together on weekends and play full contact street sports. From there they thought it would be fun to be a punk rock band and it just grew out of that fairly inauspicious beginning. However, everything prior to their signing with Warner Brothers in the early 90’s is fairly sketchy, there is a lot of footage of home movies and some early interviews, but nothing of any depth about the actual band and the motivation to transition from Fearless Freaks to Flaming Lips.

Any members of the band prior to their record contract are pretty much just ciphers. They are in and out of the picture without much fanfare, which is a shame considering that that period of the band covers almost a good half of its history. What is interesting and what I would have liked to have had more depth on is how this de facto Punk Rock Band from the early 80’s Oklahoma music scene morphed into their current identity as a relatively Progressive Rock Group.

Where the movie really builds interest is with the dynamic between Steven Drozd and Wayne Coyne, though bassist Michael Ivins still remains pretty unobtrusively in the background.

Coyne is the heart of the band. It is quickly apparent that it is his baby. There is some earlier vague reference to an internal power struggle that ended up with one of the other founding members leaving the band just as they were about to break into the national scene. However, though Coyne comes across pretty sympathetically, his on screen time seems a bit more pre-determined than relaxed and unguarded. He always seems to be acutely aware that he is being recorded. You almost get the sense that there is someone real there, but not quite. There are scenes with him interacting with other people that seem like they were only shot because it was decided that it would be good to have a scene of him interacting with other people in order to show how artistic he is and how quirky he can be.

Drozd, on the other hand, comes across as the soul of the band. It is obvious that he is the musical talent that makes it possible for Coyne to accomplish his musical visions. He also comes across, in a scene that is almost out of left field, as the most troubled member of the band. There is one telling scene that probably has more truth than any other in the movie, though I still feel that it was pretty much rehearsed, where Coyne is speaking about the movie that they are making, Christmas on Mars, and the thought process that went into whether or not they should let Drozd be the star.

In effect, the film alludes when it should show – it alludes to how eclectic Coyne can be when it needs to show how obviously eclectic he is. It alludes to how visionary the band is when it should just show it. And by showing it, I mean that the filmmaker needs to get into the process of what makes this band this particular way. If you listen to any of their recent CDs you hear a band that is now more Genesis than Sex Pistols, with deeply conflicted music that contains alternately loopy and wise lyrics. How did they get here from there?

And that is the ultimate failing of this film, I wanted to see more of how they were able to get where they are and be what they are today and still live only a couple blocks from where they grew up as children than what, ultimately, was shown here.

I really wanted to love this movie, but as a relative newcomer to the band I didn’t feel that it gave me the insight I really needed in order to understand who these people are, so in the end I only liked it reasonably well and wished for so much more from it.

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