Tonight marks the conclusion of the 2011 Doc NYC Festival- a collection of excellent documentaries and directorial works exploring the fascinating lives and stories of luminaries of stage, screen, sport, and music, to name a basic few. From Marvel’s Stan Lee to the recently passed Joe Frazier to tonight’s final showing, Project NIM, a study of human and monkey interaction through the use of sign language, this year’s DOC NYC Festival has been captivating, utilizing real life occurrences to produce stimulating storytelling.
A particularly poignant film featured a performer taken from us long before his time in “Better Than Something: Jay Reatard.” Born in Memphis in 1980 as Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr., Jay Reatard began his recording career at age 15. His mother bought him his first guitar from a neighboring yard sale, which became an escape of sorts for Lindsey. Ostracized by his classmates and spending much of his youth with only his guitar and his mother, Lindsey became enamored with the angry aggression of punk rock music and began recording in his own, signature garage rock style. Joining and subsequently dismantling small bands along the way, Lindsey attained a cult-like following at home and abroad, gaining an especially loyal following when touring Europe. His writing and recording career spanned 22 full length albums, most of which featured little to no production value because of Reatard’s belief that pouring one’s soul into music did not need to be repackaged to sound ‘better.’ His raw style certainly had its flaws, but nobody would dare claim that Reatard was anything but self made, typically playing all of the instruments on his albums. Following the August release of 2009’s solo album “Watch Me Fall,” which would be Reatard’s last, he began to catch the attention of Spin Magazine and the mainstream, and seemed truly on the cusp of emerging as a breakout rock star. But in January 2010, just months before he was to turn 30, Jay Reatard tragically overdosed and died.
Rather than tell a cautionary, cliché tale of a rising musician dealing with new found fame, “Better Than Something” delivers a deeper message. With much of the film featuring personal interviews with Reatard just months before his death, the directors who deserve praise- Alex Hammond & Ian Markiewicz- trekked down to Memphis and followed the eclectic artist, who seemed all too willing to share his inner most thoughts. Initially the film was to serve as a press kit of sorts for his album, but with his sudden passing and with so much incredible footage captured, spliced with many of the musician’s television appearances and early handheld concert footage, the filmmakers had little choice but to tell Reatard’s complete story.
While the glorification of his death is hardly touched upon, the essence of the film revolves around Reatard’s down-to-earth attitude, the anger he relinquished while performing on stage, and an unrelenting work ethic that pushed his talents far past anyone’s preconceived limitations. His love of music and his disregard for the public opinion that envelopes and changes so many artistic visions set him on a pioneer’s journey. And just when it seemed that he was prepared to take the next step musically, he was taken from the world, far too young and far too soon. “Better Than Something” is a gripping, powerful feature on a rock musician who truly never reached his full potential, and while the film itself may leave you with several more questions than answers, finding out more about Jay Reatard was perhaps what the filmmakers and Jay himself, intended.
- Jane Van Arsdale