×

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Sublime’

Bill Guttentag directs a paint-by-numbers documentary on the unlikely 1990s superstars.

With:
Eric Wilson, Bud Gaugh, Troy Dendekker, Gwen Stefani, Tony Kanal, Tom Dumont, Jim Nowell, Nancy Watilo, Mike Einziger, Ras MG, Kellie Nowell, Angelo Moore, John Norwood Fisher, Dave Kahane, Paul Leary.

1 hour 33 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Tribeca Film Review: 'Sublime'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, April 28, 2019. (In Tribeca Film Festival)

Production: An Interscope Films presentation of an 1891 production. Produced by Bill Guttentag, Nayeema Raza, Dave Kaplan, Peter Paterno, Terry Leonard. Executive producers: Steve Berman, John Janick, Anthony Seyler.

Crew: Directed by Bill Guttentag. Screenplay: Guttentag, Nayeema Raza. Camera (color): Stephen Kazmierski. Editors: John David Allen, Jim Stewart.

Cast: Eric Wilson, Bud Gaugh, Troy Dendekker, Gwen Stefani, Tony Kanal, Tom Dumont, Jim Nowell, Nancy Watilo, Mike Einziger, Ras MG, Kellie Nowell, Angelo Moore, John Norwood Fisher, Dave Kahane, Paul Leary.

More Music

  • Maya Thurman Hawke at the Premiere

    Maya Hawke Debuts Two Singles Ahead of Album Release

    Fresh off her Manson cult role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Maya Hawke is turning to music. The “Stranger Things” star released two new singles Friday, “To Love a Boy” and “Stay Open,” both of which will appear on her yet-to-be-titled upcoming album. Hawke wrote the lyrics and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jesse [...]

  • Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music

    As Woodstock Turns 50, the Fest's 10 Most Sacred Music Moments (Watch)

    Cars were left abandoned along the New York Interstate. Electrical and speaker systems fuzzed and popped. Amps blew then went silent. The rain was endless as the mud sank deep and rank. Young children ran naked and dazed through crowds of strangers. Food was scarce. Water, unclean. Looking back, Woodstock seems a more apocalyptic, than [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST

    Jay-Z to Acquire Ownership Stake in NFL Team (Report)

    Jay-Z will soon acquire a “significant ownership interest” in an NFL team, TMZ reported on Friday. The team was not disclosed, but a source told the site the deal will happen in the “near future,” adding that the billionaire rapper “wants to continue to be a change agent for the NFL.” Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, [...]

  • (L-R) NELL WILLIAMS as Eliza, VIVEIK

    How 'Blinded by the Light' Brought Bruce Springsteen's Music to the Screen for a Song

    Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the [...]

  • Blake Shelton, Trace AdkinsCMA Music Festival

    Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at 'Old Town Road' in New Single

    Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout [...]

  • Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

    Department of Justice Backs Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

    The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the next big music copyright case on the horizon following the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” decision, and taken Led Zeppelin’s side in the long-running copyright dispute that pits the writers of the group’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” against the publishers of the earlier song “Taurus” by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content