The Other Cinema Soho, London
Wednesday, October 30 2002

And so it came to pass that I got word that the long-awaited MC5 film, "MC5 - A True Testimonial" was finished, and after screenings in Toronto and Chicago, was making its European debut as part of the a London film festival on 30th October. I managed to book myself a ticket for the small Soho cinema showing it, and journeyed up to London that afternoon.

Arriving at the cinema in good time for the showing, we were shepherded down the stairs and ended up queuing in a small corridor. Whilst standing their killing time, a guy with an American accent pointed to my MC5 T-shirt and said: "Did you buy that on-line?" When I answered yes, he said: "Thanks very much for the support, I'm David C. Thomas, the director." We chatted about various aspects of the film in terms of making it and showing it, and I asked if they were going to take it to Australia. Apparently the Melbourne Film Festival are interested, and he hopes to take it to Australia for a showing or two at some point.

Anyway, he had to shoot off and see some other people, and we started to move into the cinema proper, whereupon he appeared in front of the sold-out crowd (about 300 or so I'd guess), introducing the film as a seven-year labour of love, and how meaningful tonight's showing was, being the Zenta New Year, exactly 34 years to the night that "Kick Out The Jams" album was recorded.

The film opens with some eerie footage shot inside the deserted and dilapidated Grande Ballroom in Detroit, then goes on to give a brief portrait of the five main protagonists. The film is basically a collection of interview clips, primarily shot for the film, but also some archive interviews, interspersed with live footage, both with sound dubbed from the albums and with the original footage's live sound. Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis are interviewed extensively, and there's a fair amount of input from Rob Tyner's widow and Fred Smith's wife of the time, and John Sinclair. There are also some interview clips with Rob Tyner from about 1989 - unfortunately there is only one individual interview with Fred Smith in the film, from 1972. It would seem that there isn't really any interview footage of Fred around, and alas it's too late now.
There is radio sound of the 5 from a radio station's battle of the bands in 1965, and footage of them on a local TV station from 1967, as well as other stills shots of them from their earliest incarnations.

The film sets the background for the band growing up and forming and then tells the story of the development of the band, falling in with Johns Sinclair, playing the Democratic national Convention/police riot in 1968, having to move from Detroit to Ann Arbor to escape trouble etc from the police.

There's a lovely series of interview clips where the first shows Sinclair outlining the story behind the White Panthers, then a clip of Kramer explaining how important and necessary it was, followed by two clips (of Davis and then Thompson) saying how the White Panthers were nothing but a distraction and an irrelevance. Cue another clip from Kramer saying "of course, the rhythm section may have a different opinion".

The story continues with their migration to England, their story of playing the Phun City festival in England (with some fine footage), Fred's silver "spacesuit" (needs to be seen to be believed!) and all the way through to the final dissolution of the band, and replacement of Davis and Thompson as they dropped out, and then the final show, New Year's Eve 1972, with Kramer explaining how he had to walk off halfway through the show, take his guitar and money and score some heroin - you can see that even at this remove he has great regrets how it all fell apart.

There's some great live footage, probably the best of which is a version of "Looking At You" from an outdoor gig at a university one afternoon in 1970, and the whole film does an excellent job of making you realise what a great band they really were. Hell, I wish I could see more of them. Ideally I would have liked more live footage, but there is a story to tell, and anyway, who knows how many bits of usable footage with sound exist.

What there is is compelling and well-cut together, generating an overwhelming sense of energy. I did note that in the credits at the end, the list of thanks includes Deniz Tek, Ken Shimamoto, and a mysterious entity known only as I94-Bar! I gather from the credits (and from postings over the past couple of years) that various other musicians have recorded "testimonial" interviews - they don't appear on the film, but are acknowledged in the credits. In an ideal world, these would all appear on a DVD edition of the film. There again, in an ideal world, the MC5 would have made a hell of a lot more music.

This film won't win any Oscars, but that's probably a good thing if Titanic can win eight of the bloody things. "MC5 - A True Testimonial" is a fascinating piece of history and an admirable piece of film-making - it's two hours long, but the time never drags, it never seems that long and it leaves you wanting more; see it if you can. I bumped into the director after the show, and he asked me "So what did you think, did I do all right?" "You did a damn fine job" I told him, and I meant it. - Jelly

MC5 t-shirts and baseball caps are available from Future Now Films

Five bottles please, Mr Barman!