Archived Events, Film

(11/14 – 11/15) URGH! A MUSIC WAR (1981) DIR. DEREK BURBIDGE @BRATTLE

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In 1820, naturalist James Audubon declared his intention to paint and describe every bird in North America in a single volume. Using pastels, watercolors, and a homemade contraption of wires to keep his specimens posed, Audubon created life-sized, photorealistic portraits of hundreds of birds from across the continent. The resulting book, Birds of America, is a sprawling, gorgeous tome, essential for anyone with even a passing interest in natural history. And yet, viewed with scrutiny from a modern perspective, certain peculiarities arise. Some birds are misclassified; others are described as being from an entirely incorrect part of the world; and a few — such as the majestic Washington’s Eagle — only seem to have been sighted by Audubon himself. These quirks do not diminish this wonderful book, but they do show how historical perspective can shape even objective research.

URGH! A MUSIC WAR, the dizzyingly eclectic 1981 concert film by Derek Burbidge, roughly does for the alternative music boom of the 1980s what Audubon’s book did for our feathered friends: it presents a massive, comprehensive snapshot at the many tributaries to split off of punk’s main stem at the beginning of its second decade. Like BIRDS OF AMERICA, URGH! is unwieldy (36 complete performances, with hardly a breath between songs), yet imminently accessible, not to mention dazzling to look at. But also like Audubon, Burbidge makes some choices which seem, with the passage of time, increasingly odd. A few of the bands are peculiarly classified — only the most cockeyed curator would today place The Go-Go’s in the same category as the Dead Kennedys. Iconic, earth-moving bands like Devo and The Police are placed alongside forgotten acts like John Otway and Skafish. And at least one band — the bizarre, masked septet Invisible Sex — appears to have been captured in their sole public performance.

In the end, though, none of this matters, thanks to one simple fact: URGH! fucking rocks. Its rapid-fire, context-free approach allows one to make connections they might never make on their own, and even when a band doesn’t quite connect, there’s another one right around the corner. And the eclecticism of the selections means there’s something for pretty much every music fan to treasure. You’ll get to see XTC on their final tour, shortly before the nervous breakdown which would confine lead singer Andy Partridge to the studio for the next thirty years. You’ll witness cult icon Klaus Nomi at the absolute height of his cosmic powers, following the bump he got from appearing with David Bowie on SNL. You’ll see psychobilly godfathers The Cramps deliver an incendiary performance of “Tear It Up,” with frontman Lux Interior’s low-rising pants and unseemly relationship with his microphone almost certainly earning the film its R rating. And you’ll find rare clips of all manner of cultishly adored bands, from new wave (Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo) to post-punk (Pere Ubu, Gang of Four) to whatever you want to call John Cooper Clarke. The whole thing plays like a mix-tape from your most obsessive record collector friend – one who, like Audubon, needs to include everything.

URGH! A MUSIC WAR (1981) dir. Derek Burbidge

Part of the ongoing series: REEL MUSIC FILM FESTIVAL

Friday, 11/14, 11:00 PM & Saturday, 11/15, 1:00 PM

Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

$10 ($8 for Saturday show)

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