Rodman Flender's Let Them Eat Rock and Anja Baron's The Last of the First couldn't seem more different at first glance. The first film looks at Boston's the Upper Crust, a hard-rock band whose shtick involves wearing powdered wigs and frilly shirts and writing songs from the persona of fey, 18th century aristocrats. The movie's title comes from a song, and it's the band's humorous solution for the hungry, "the lazy slobs / (who) lost their jobs / now they ain't got enough to eat." The Last of the First looks at the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, aging jazz musicians who played with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington among others. As different as the featured bands are, the documentaries share a focus on how the musicians live.
Shooting on Let Them Eat Rock began in 1998 before the band recorded its first album, and it documents the weeks leading to an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Some challenges the band faces along the way are specific to the act. At one point, band members have to dress and put on their makeup in the glorified broom closet one club called a backstage. On screen, the overhead camera makes them look like a litter of baby hamsters crawling on each other to get to an open teat.
Flender highlights one of the most basic issues any band confronts in a section on the member's day jobs. One musician drives a bread truck, one works in a used bookstore -- both typical enough rock 'n' roll jobs. Then another is a landscape architect, and guitarist Ted Widmer was teaching American satire at Harvard University. Flender reveals the different worlds and places of their lives, and the section ends with singer Nat Freedberg declaring he was "an infant of leisure, and after that, an adolescent of leisure." With his trust fund, Freedberg essentially bankrolled the band.
Flender successfully captures the details of life in an emerging rock 'n' roll band. No band can watch the discussion of the group's finances at the kitchen table or the van ride to a gig and not grimace in recognition, and the gigs in Boston are hardly glamorous. The low-budget production means the Upeer Crust's live sound is pretty rough, but that's truer to what bands sound like live than they or their fans would like to admit.
Unfortunately, Flender is less successful at making viewers care about these people. It's not that they're bad or repellant people; more accurately, the only two band members who emerge as people are Widmer and Freedberg -- and barely so at that. Freedberg, who often appears in New Orleans Saints T-shirts in the film and has since become an investor in the local bar The Saint, is enigmatic, and Flender doesn't engage him effectively. The band's gimmick is adapting an air of superiority, but viewers are no closer to knowing whether or not Freedberg's a rich jerk, or if he just stays in character when the camera's rolling.
Let Them Eat Rock ends in 2003 with an epilogue that shows what happens when the ironic world of underground rock meets the real world.
The Last of the First, on the other hand, is all about the real world, and Anja Baron tells a story that may be as predictable as the one in Let Them Eat Rock. The youngest musician of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band is in his 60s and the oldest members are in their 90s, so it's no surprise that Baron shows the members dealing with their age and stature. Guitarist Lawrence Lucie clearly appreciates the audiences for the band's weekly gigs, but after teaching a class of young guitarists, Lucie says, "I should have a lot of money now." When an off-camera voice says, "That's the way it is," he answers, "Yeah, but I can't face it." Baron clearly loves Al Casey, who played guitar with Fats Waller. She treats his warm face lovingly, and Johnny Blowers, who played drums for Frank Sinatra, is an engaging narrator. Baron also brings a true believer's sensibility to The Last of the First, filming these people's lives because they are, as the film's title says, the last of the first. She doesn't find anything unexpected in the course of the movie, but Baron's at her most successful when she follows the musicians, capturing the day-to-day life of the aging. There are details specific to older musicians, but much of what her camera sees pertains to most senior citizens, regardless of their pasts. Let Them Eat Rock examines a narrower segment of society -- young men with rock 'n' roll dreams -- but both movies are most interesting as examinations of the textures of a life in music.