Charged with alternating currents of affection, exuberance and ineffable melancholy, “The Holy Modal Rounders … Bound to Lose” offers an intriguing overview of the cult-fave combo that improbably evolved from an acoustic duo to a psychedelic country-folk-rock band. Theatrical prospects are slim, but docu might prove popular with niche auds in cable and homevid venues.
Shot over a three-year period by helmers Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace, pic focuses primarily on fiddler Peter Stampfel and guitarist Steve Weber, who began the Rounders during the ’60s folk movement in New York’s Greenwich Village. Other interviewees include actor-playwright Sam Shepard, who served as drummer for the Rounders from 1966-69, and Dennis Hopper, who gave the band its greatest mainstream visibility by including a Rounders tune (“If You Want to be a Bird”) on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack.
Through four decades of personnel changes and shifting alliances — for two years, the group performed as part of the Fugs, a notorious Lower East Side rock band — the Rounders have continued to perform outsider music with a self-satirical edge for a relatively small but fiercely devoted fan base. Along the way, natch, drug abuse, internal conflicts and nonstop touring have taken their toll.
In the early ’80s, Stampfel took an extended sabbatical from the group to kick a speed habit. During interviews with filmmakers, he describes how he cleaned up his act, started a family and found a day job as editor at a Manhattan publishing house.
In sharp contrast, Weber takes pride in being a fun-loving reprobate. He remained with the band long after its relocation to Oregon. And while he claims to have kicked an even nastier drug habit, he also remains an unapologetic sybarite when it comes to drinking and generally raising hell.
“Bound to Lose” generates palpable dramatic tension during extended scenes in which Weber (bearded and bedraggled) and Stampfel (a wild man on stage, but almost placid in person) squabble like a married couple, particularly over who should receive songwriting credit for classic Rounders songs.
Loosely structured pic builds to a climax of sorts as long-simmering disputes and unbreakable bad habits threaten to disrupt the group’s 40th anniversary tour.
Helmers do a reasonably efficient job of interweaving archival footage, talking-heads interviews and cinema-verite reportage. But it’s occasionally jarring — andconfusing — to note changes in appearances of interviewees over the extended shooting period.
Funniest moment is prompted by a clip of a 1968 Rounders performance, with Shepard as drummer, on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Pic immediately cuts to a recent interview with a frankly incredulous Shepard, who remarks: “We were on ‘Laugh-In’? No! I don’t remember any of this! What kind of drugs were we on?”