Review: ‘MC5: A True Testimonial’

Like NYC's Velvet Underground, Detroit's MC5 was a late-'60s/early '70s rock outfit that enjoyed critical praise but not enough commercial success while active; after breakup, the group acquired legendary status among the next generation's punks and indie rockers.

Like NYC’s Velvet Underground, Detroit’s MC5 was a late-’60s/early ’70s rock outfit that enjoyed critical praise but not enough commercial success while active; after breakup, the group acquired legendary status among the next generation’s punks and indie rockers. In-depth chronicle of band’s career, “A True Testimonial” draws on extensive archival materials to etch an absorbing portrait of a singular counterculture mini-phenom that will be manna to music fans.

Original members were a scruffy lot all hailing from the same working-class Motor City suburb. Their muscular sound — closer to garage, “heavy” and punk music than then-fashionable psychedelic — won a rabid regional following, while their revolutionary politics attracted less-welcome attention from the FBI. They were the only band to play outside 1968’s notorious Chicago Democratic Convention, co-founded Yippie-ish org the White Panthers, enraged their major label by printing a rabble-rousing manifesto on an album sleeve, and for a while worked under the aegis of both a commune and a “spiritual adviser.”

Eventually, infighting, canceled recording contracts and an unmanageable reputation led to their demise. One memorable seg here, following several genuinely exciting concert clips from earlier years, shows the last-gasp “band” — in fact just two remaining members and three fill-ins, engaged to finish a 1972 European tour — grimly playing a Scandinavian hall, their sound and demeanor both miserable.

Surviving members (two, including punker Patti Smith’s eventual husband/collaborator Fred “Sonic” Smith, have since died) are still pretty full of themselves, and offer entertainingly contrary recall of their shared history. Surprisingly, this detailed trot through a semi-forgotten chapter in rock’s annals maintains interest throughout — due largely to MC5 being so deeply steeped in hippie-era politics and philosophy — though predictable reasons (drugs, ego, lack of cash) for their dissolution make the last half-hour or so drag.

It’s too bad filmmakers couldn’t find room (despite full two-hour running time) to comment on MC5’s lasting influence. A stellar list of latter-day musicians are credited at the end as contribbing “testimonials,” but that footage evidently didn’t make the final cut.

Debuting helmer David C. Thomas has assembled a lively and colorful package, tossing in everything from race riots news footage and vintage TV studio/concert performances to interviews with bemused ex-wives.

MC5: A True Testimonial

Production

A Zenta L.L.C. presentation of a Future/Now Films production. Produced by Laurel Legler. Executive producers, Jim Roehm, Howard Thompson. Directed, edited by David C. Thomas.

Crew

Camera (color, Digital Betacam), Anthony Allen; music, MC5; sound, Ron Ayers, Deron Grams. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 7, 2002. Running time: 120 MIN.
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