Unless you were of the right age and geographic orientation, Sublime might be an easy band to overlook. A number of their songs haven’t aged particularly well; from a distance they might blend in with the glut of bleached-blond ska-punks who followed in their wake; and their longevity was limited by the untimely passing of frontman Bradley Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose just before they released the album that would make them household names. But if you happened to be a teenager in Southern California in the late 1990s, Sublime was second only to Snoop and Dre for party and parking lot sound system ubiquity, and the time seems right for a full-scale exploration of one of the decade’s unlikeliest superstar bands.
Unfortunately, Bill Guttentag’s paint-by-numbers documentary “Sublime” never delves far enough beneath the surface, nor does it make much of an attempt to contextualize the band for those who weren’t around to see their heyday. Relying mostly on interviews with surviving members Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh, Nowell’s widow Troy Dendekker, and the band’s SoCal contemporaries (primarily No Doubt), the film is enlivened with plenty of first-hand detail that should be lapped up by the group’s fans, but its unimaginative construction prevents it from connecting the dots that would reveal a fuller picture.
At the start, at least, the film sketches a tangible portrait of Long Beach, Calif., in the 1980s as a vibrant melting pot of races, classes and musical subcultures. Few people seemed better equipped to navigate that scene than Long Beach native Nowell, a hard-partying, musically omnivorous, essentially sweet surfer-dude who started Sublime as a catch-all repository for his primary musical obsessions: punk, reggae, and hip-hop. (In one of the film’s most endearing discoveries, we hear a young Nowell calling in to the request line on a reggae radio show, eager to tape-record rare Jamaican tracks that were otherwise impossible to find pre-internet.)
Sublime’s earliest self-releases were intriguingly free-associative (albeit often juvenile) punk collages that smashed together genres and techniques with little regard for polish or consistency, and judging by the film’s depiction, the trio seemed content to be an in-demand act for parties in Long Beach and Ensenada, while playing to empty bars most everywhere else. A few labels took one look and passed once they got a glimpse of the band’s partying habits – Epitaph Records founder Brett Gurewitz was interested enough to book them some studio time, then cut ties when his engineer came back with stories of the band smoking crack in the studio – but the group exploded into the wider consciousness when a young programmer at L.A.’s influential rock station KROQ snuck Sublime’s then-four-year-old track “Date Rape” onto the air. Within 24 hours, it was the station’s most-requested song.
At least in the earlygoing, the band’s alcohol-fueled irresponsibility is portrayed as an almost lovable quirk, but it’s obvious that Nowell’s serious addiction issues long predated the band’s overnight fame. (As Gwen Stefani remembers, Nowell’s physique would seesaw from healthily beer-bellied to frighteningly skeletal depending on his drug intake.) The film never seems entirely sure how to handle this rather bleak darkness underlying the band’s sunnier image. Dendekker and Sublime drummer Gaugh share some truly sad anecdotes about Nowell’s sickness – Gaugh was the one who found Nowell after his overdose, and the memory seems brutally fresh – but these sobering moments fit awkwardly with some of the cheeky wild-man tall-tales told by others.
The film also never fully explores the aftermath of 1996’s self-titled “Sublime,” which sold six million copies after Nowell’s death, with many of the band’s new fans initially unaware that the singer they were listening to was no longer alive. How bitterly surreal was it for Gaugh and Wilson to watch as their recently-deceased friend became a posthumous superstar? What was it like for Dendekker – who married Nowell just a week before his death – to raise their child in his absence? What was the long term impact of Sublime’s promiscuous genre-hopping on today’s more boundary-less pop music landscape, and how much has their legacy been complicated by modern discussions of cultural appropriation? There seems to be plenty of fascinating stories left to tell, but for now, this is what we’ve got.