Years of “Behind the Music”-style studies suggest that all unhappy bands seem to follow a similar sequence of drug-fueled dissolution. Iconoclastic Los Angeles band Fishbone proves a welcome exception to the rule in Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone,” which uses clever touches (including animation and oil paintings) and resists self-pity in casting the band’s many misfortunes as a sort of secret triumph. Effortlessly entertaining, joyful docu should earn heavy fest rotation.
Notable for their hybridized style (they can interchangeably be categorized as ska, punk, metal, funk or jazz-rock), as well as their place alongside Bad Brains, the Busboys and Living Colour among the few all-black rock bands of their era, Fishbone has one of the best “shoulda been a contender” cases around. Rising to prominence alongside peers and stylistic cousins the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, and a huge influence on later superstars like No Doubt (all of whom appear in interviews here), the band nonetheless never translated its widespread respect into mainstream success.
A genuinely hilarious animated segment sketches, in “Fat Albert” style, the ways enforced school busing in the late ’70s brought the group together; as kids from the rough streets of South Central, several of these future band members bonded over the burgeoning punk rock scene they discovered at predominantly white schools in the Valley. Busing also provided them with an introduction to an odd, perpetually smiling Jehovah’s Witness-raised Valley kid named Angelo Moore, who would quickly become the frontman of the nascent sextet.
Despite A&R confusion over how best to market the group, Fishbone scored a contract with Columbia Records while its members were still in their teens, and gained a reputation as one of the best live bands of its era. On the cusp of stardom in the early ’90s (with a “Saturday Night Live” appearance and a Spike Lee-directed musicvideo to its credit), the group imploded through a truly bizarre series of interpersonal flare-ups, which included guitarist Kendall Jones joining a cult, a failed intervention that led to kidnapping charges and one founding member, Walter Kibby, quitting due to Moore’s excessive use of the Theremin (more or less).
Moore and surfer-dude bassist Norwood Fisher are eventually the last two standing, and their contentious relationship emerges as the film’s center. Neither man downplays the difficulties of maintaining what often seems to be a lost cause (a “This Is Spinal Tap”-like scene of an unattended autograph session and a near-deserted concert in Eastern Europe are as funny as they are depressing), nor the ways that rock ‘n’ roll intransigence can become an increasingly untenable lifestyle as one enters middle age. Moore, in particular, seems to have drawn the short straw, forced to move back in with his mother and desperate to make up for his years of absentee fatherhood.
In the end, however, the film is less concerned with bemoaning the music industry, and more interested in delineating the difficulties creative, eccentric people must withstand to live their lives without compromise. While they never attained the level of success they deserved, Fishbone nonetheless clearly succeeded on the no-compromise front, and “Everyday Sunshine” eventually becomes a rare beast: an inspirational, happy film about failure.
The two directors have collected vast amounts of footage (their own and vintage performance films), and their subjects seem to have few qualms about granting full access to their lives, both professional and domestic. Animated visual aids are cleverly done, and the film is well constructed overall.