Feign I'm Gonna Live Forever By Mike White. They’re not impersonators, they’re not imposters, nor are they imitators. We speak now of tribute artists...
They’re not impersonators, they’re not imposters, nor are they imitators. We speak now of tribute artists. Playing the Moose lodges, American Legion halls, and smoky bars across America, they are the kagemusha of popular music.
What drives these people to adopt the playlists of established acts? Performing in a tribute band guarantees a positive response. Better tribute bands are those who pay homage to acts that no longer exist or who have priced themselves out of range of the average working stiff. Audiences are hungry for an opportunity to experience the glorious acts of yore.
Riding high on a wave of ironic post-modernism at the new millennium’s dawn are several documentaries about tribute artists.
You Wanted the Best... You Got the Rest
Tributary and An Incredible Simulation originally began as one project as conceived by Russ Forester, Darren Hacker, and Jeff Economy. However, creative differences caused a rift between the parties, resulting in two half-baked projects that share footage and, ultimately, share faults.
In Tributary, Forester’s on-screen introduction gives the impression that the filmmaker will be the viewers’ conduit to information via either voice-over narration or interviews. Forester would have done well to embrace a more personal interface. Rather, the film has the structure and cold classification of a term paper. Forester presents four perceived groups of tribute bands. This taxonomy feels arbitrary at best and strained at worst. Yet, that Forester employed any structure at all puts Tributary heads above An Incredible Simulation.
Hacker and Economy’s work suffers from a lack of cohesion. There is a vague thread of continuity in An Incredible Simulation via the appropriation of a Beatlemania documentary. Yet, despite the poor quality of this video footage (couldn’t a better copy be unearthed?), the Beatlemania flick seemed far more interesting than the new footage surrounding it.
Sired from the same project, both Tributary and An Incredible Simulation contain interviews with intense 60 Minutes-style close-ups that only distance viewers from the material. When Forrester and company parted ways, however, Tributary appeared to gain a better camera operator. Likewise, Tributary has technical superiority in areas of audio and editing. Moreover, Forester’s work also has more heart, humor, and irony than An Incredible Simulation.
All parties involved with Tributary and An Incredible Simulation (and anyone interested in an effective, well-made documentary about tribute artists) should take note of Kris Curry and Rich Fox’s Tribute. By narrowing the scope from “as many cover bands as possible” to a handful of acts, Tribute gives a proper amount of time and attention to each band (or its fans), allowing the viewer a better view of the wide array of tribute artists as well as the human drama behind them.
The structure of Tribute is simple and effective. The documentary introduces five bands that pay tribute to Journey, KISS, Judas Priest, The Monkees, and Queen. Undoubtedly, the stars of the show are Larger than Life, the KISS tribute band. The audience immediately sympathizes with the band’s “Peter Criss” and “Ace Frehley”-two regular guys who have found fun and satisfaction playing KISS covers with Jay Harris, an African American “Paul Stanley,” and Andy Patche, a dead-on “Gene Simmons” (even without the make-up).
Filmmakers Curry and Fox don’t forget that even the best documentaries need a narrative thread or two. After the audience meets each of the bands, the filmmakers revisit them, allowing viewers to see how these groups have grown or changed over time and giving their stories more depth. Curry and Fox show an incredible aptitude for filmmaking, using ironic juxtapositions to wonderful effect. The inter-cutting of two performances of “Last Train to Clarksville” by two feuding Monkees tribute bands is deliciously telling.
Tribute sticks with viewers. Subjects such as Sheer Heart Attack’s superfan leave an indelible mark. Meanwhile, Tributary and An Incredible Simulation leave viewers will little more than confusion. Both Tributary and Simulation suffer from the filmmakers trying to stuff their work to the brim with an overabundance of bands (often scraping the bottom of the barrel) while Tribute, with its handful of bands, catches the drama that surrounds them.
Can 50,000,000 Elvises Be Wrong?
Like Tributary and Simulation, John Paget’s Almost Elvis suffers from wanting to include a cavalcade of Elvises rather than focusing on why these folks pay tribute to The King or how it feels to make a living off the memory of Elvis. More important, Paget ignores the folks who pay to see Elvis impersonators and barely touches on the cultural phenomenon of Elvis and the legions of people who choose to emulate him.
Almost Elvis starts off strong, following the path to the 1999 Images of Elvis competition in Memphis, Tennessee. The main character of the documentary is Irv Cass of Niles, Michigan. Cass does one hell of a tribute to The King; his sideburns real, his voice strong, and his jumpsuit snug. While the cynosure of the film is the night of a hundred Elvises (which ends up looking rather shabby), Almost Elvis indulges in a few vignettes, which feature other Elvis impersonators or trappings of the trade.
Too late in the game, the audience meets Robert Washington, a battleship painter who seems destined to never take the grand prize at the impending contest due to the color of his skin. The introduction of Washington and his racial “dilemma” opens a can of worms that no one in Almost Elvis, including the filmmaker, seems comfortable in exploring. Even in this potentially objective arena, Washington gets short shrift.
If Washington is a serious Elvis impersonator being treated as something like a joke, another documentary takes a “joke” and shows the serious side of it, El Vez: El Rei de Rock ‘N’ Roll. This work examines El Vez, a “Latino novelty act.” Director Marjorie Chodorov manages to go behind the perfectly coiffed façade of El Vez to present Robert Lopez, the brown bombshell’s alter ego. Comprehensive, engaging, charming Chodorov’s sixty-minute creation won the Best Documentary award at the 2001 MicroCineFest.
And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’
The more I researched documentaries on tribute acts, the more films I found. Quite often, these works were only slightly more popular than the bands they documented. The cause of this obscurity stems from the films coming off as glorified promotional pieces. The rare work strips away the artifice of a profession steeped in this notion.
Undoubtedly, tribute bands prove fascinating as subject matter-often they hold more interest than the artists to whom they pay homage. Yet, as with all documentaries, it takes more to make a compelling work than simply running out to the local pub with an old camcorder to tape a Molly Hatchet tribute band from the far end of the bar. If films about tribute bands need to venerate other films of similar nature, Tribute and El Vez: El Rei de Rock ‘N’ Roll should be the acts to follow.
Back to Issue 13