Prior to watching Jem Cohen’s Instrument I had only two memories of Fugazi. One was from T-shirt sellers in the back-pages of guitar-mags I consumed as a kid. The other was a rumor I heard while living in Washington, DC. Someone said they’d been stuck in the pick-up line for their kid at Wilson High School in Tenleytown and a member of the band had been stuck in the car in front of them. Or behind them. It doesn’t matter. These guys are local to Washington, DC. I’m from California. I didn’t know DC had any music. I don’t say that to sound arrogant. It just never came up. Now, after spending two hours of my life watching Instrument I’m still at a loss as to whether I should care.
Is Fugazi the greatest band I’ve never heard? They’re certainly a band that has never found their way into my playlist. I can’t remember ever finding a Fugazi album in a friend’s stack of records. Agent Orange and Rancid (I know… same thing) might be as punk as it got. I grew up in the home of a troubadour comfortable with peeling off Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, John Denver and Donovan. My dad and his roommate would play Dueling Banjos and Alice’s Restaurant in coffee shops for beer money. But no one ever suggested there was a great Fugazi album I really needed to sink my teeth into.
Here comes Jem Cohen. When we meet Fugazi through his lens at the beginning of Instrument I get the feeling he’s picked up a camera for the first time. He’s excited to be there and the band has let him come on stage. This is very exciting. But the camerawork is complete shit and so is the audio. I’m seeing tracers like I did from the first days I ever hefted a camera and shot my friends jamming in the backyard. But Jem persists. He follows. He catches them at a touching moment in a cabin. The band jokes that rumors are they live like monks and eat nothing but rice. It’s funny. But other than a brief interlude at a restaurant where chopsticks are the dominant cutlery, we are never shown the band eating or drinking anything other than Perrier. Totes punk.
Jem creates thoughtful portraits of concert-goers. Through three extended interludes we get views of the clothing and attitudes of Fugazi’s fans. This feels like milquetoast punk to me, the uninitiated. No anger and vitriol here. No “fuck the government”. More like “I won’t vote for the haters”. I don’t know this tact. Their fans are less leather and hair and more piercings and cloves. The mowhawks aren’t as tall. The chains aren’t as conspicuous. Piercings abound but these punks are more of the straight-edge variety—something Ian MacKaye is closely associated with even as he rejects any involvement in the movement’s creation.
Jem’s camera work is all over the place. In 2009 I followed the band Playmaker as they toured China. They brought a miniHDV camera with them and asked that I use it instead of my own. It shot to miniHDV-PAL tapes. I never saw the footage. If I followed them for the ensuing decade I get the feeling the results would look a lot like this. While there’s a montage suggesting world travel and some great material shot on the Capitol Mall beneath the Washington Monument, the footage is all around underwhelming. It exists as a whole as a fly-on-the-wall evidentiary document without probing into any of the things that I, as the kid who never got Fugazi, would suddenly latch on to in his 30s.
Here I am at the far side of this documentary and, other than Canty’s cowbell, I have a lot of concert footage and mediocre audio pluckings without a solid reference to the band’s discography. I read online that much of the music in this film is associative to the album Red Medicine. But I have no significant point of reference for it. The production value of the documentary seems to ramp up alongside the audio quality and I really can’t tell if the band got better in tandem with Jem’s production gear or whether he just really sucked at catching their sound in the earlier days.
As a mash-up of 8mm, 16mm and video, this production certainly didn’t start off in 1987 with a treatment, a story arc and careful consideration of the qualities that might make an AU prof squeal. Jem had a camera, was a grade-school friend of Ian’s and he liked the band. Beyond that it was catch-as-catch-can. That there wasn’t more of an effort to articulate some of the things that the band is well-known for is (maybe) totally punk to those that adore Fugazi. Instrument is not an explainer or a bio-pic, it is not a treasure map and it is not a history. But it is a portrait and it is intriguing and it is clearly the product of its creators.
Instrument does suggest that there was a band named Fugazi that did its thing, did it its way and made a shit-ton of money along the way. They never bowed to record labels. They never sold t-shirts (apparently) and I have no idea who was behind the charlatans pumping Fugazi gear in the back of the guitar mags.
Jem Cohen’s Professional Site
A.V. Club’s Kyle Ryan writes The Fugazi documentary Instrument makes the mundane mesmerizing
The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson writes Jem Cohen: Punk-Rock Nature
The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington writes Keeping it Reel: Film as a Backstage Pass, 13 June 1999
Variety’s Dennis Harvey writes REVIEW: Instrument: Ten Years with the Band Fugazi,12 Dec, 1999