BUFF, Film, Film Review

BUFF REVIEW: Stand By for Failure: A Documentary About Negativland (2022) dir. Ryan Worsley

Part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival


Before we get into the meat of this review an obligatory disclaimer. Though I am a film critic by trade, I am just as much obsessed with records, particularly when it comes to the underground, the alternative, and the flat-out obscure. I spent nearly a decade serving behind the counter at Planet Records in Harvard Square, and have prowled the dusty crates of New England’s record shops since my early teens. As such, it is difficult for me to cast an unbiased eye towards documentaries about artists and musicians which fall within my wheelhouse; though I can judge a film like Zappa or The Sparks Brothers or The Velvet Underground or Theory of Obscurity on its own merits, it should be noted while reading that my views are those of the converted. I am probably the target audience for Stand By for Failure, the new documentary about the legendary sound-art pranksters Negativland, and while I sense that it’s probably not the best entry point for the uninitiated, it’s every bit as mind-altering as its subjects.

“What is Negativland?” This question serves as a throughline in Stand By for Failure, asked by interviewers of various members in a series of archival clips, each time met with a different, wildly circuitous answer. The short answer is that Negativland is a long-running musical collective specializing in dense collages of found-sound audio loops and home-brewed electronics, often used to hypnotic and wryly humorous effect; triangulate a midpoint between the sample-delic soundscapes of the Dust Brothers or De La Soul and the trippy head-comedy of the Firesign Theatre and you’ll be in the right ballpark. The group’s penchant for pranks and culture-jamming (a term coined by longtime member Don Joyce) has led to a great deal of notoriety in the media, and their liberal use of sampling has occasionally left them in hot water (most infamously, their 1991 EP U2 led to a high-profile lawsuit from Island Records). But through both legal and personal adversity, Negativland has persisted as one of the most unique voices in alternative music, both through their studio records (which number more than a dozen full-length albums, plus assorted EPs and side releases) and their live sonic-collage radio show Over the Edge, which has aired weekly on Berkeley’s KPFA for over 40 years.

One could probably make a pretty entertaining conventional documentary about Negativland’s career– which is filled with enough outrageous anecdotes to sustain an entire miniseries– but such an approach would be thoroughly un-Negativland. Instead, director Ryan Worsley (a frequent Negativland collaborator) constructs her film in the style of a Negativland album, weaving together performance footage, home movies, and vintage news reports into a dense, feature-length montage. Unlike last year’s Moonage Daydream, which employs similar techniques on a less lo-fi scale, most of the footage and audio is clearly dated and attributed onscreen, which goes a long way toward contextualizing what we’re seeing and hearing. But, again, while the material is presented in a more or less linear fashion, the emphasis is not on the story, but on the feel and the ethos. Like Negativland’s music, Worsley’s film sweeps you up, and once you understand her rhythms it’s not difficult to go along with the flow.

One of the tricky things about telling Negativland’s story is that, thanks to the mystifying nature of their music, it’s more difficult to hone in on individual members’ contributions and personalities than in a conventional “band”; founding member Mark Hosler frequently emerges as the group’s de facto spokesperson thanks to his articulate outspokenness (which I experienced firsthand when I interviewed him in 2018), particularly compared to the taciturn Joyce and the always-in-character Richard Lyons. Worsley, however, makes the inspired decision to frame fellow founder David Wills as her central character. Wills, known as “The Weatherman” to fans, is simultaneously the group’s most recognizable member thanks to his distinctive drawl (that’s him reciting the lyrics to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the U2 single), and arguably its most mysterious; he does not perform live with the group, instead appearing via prerecorded segments or, in recent years, FaceTime. Thanks to extensive interviews and a treasure trove of home video footage (Wills has been a compulsive self-recorder since childhood), Worsley reveals Wills to be every bit the character he appears to be on record, a cheerful, capital-E eccentric perpetually ensconced in his home studio, building electronic noisemakers and collecting audio from his radio scanner. Wills is, by all appearances, the beating heart of the group, and I could watch him puttering around his home for hours.

All that being said, I would hesitate to recommend Stand By for Failure to the Negativland neophyte*. Thanks to Worsley’s sometimes impressionistic approach, certain events are portrayed without being fully explained; a newcomer may, for example, walk away with the impression that the song “Christianity Is Stupid” was linked to a real-life axe murder in the 1980s (this story began as a tongue-in-cheek press release the group sent out to explain why they weren’t touring, and evolved into a full-blown media prank as national outlets ran with the story without fact-checking it). Much of the material seems aimed at those already acquainted with the band’s story, and those who aren’t may be left scratching their heads. In an informal poll before the screening, about half the people in the audience confessed that they weren’t familiar with the group, and I can’t imagine they’re now much closer to answering the question of “What is Negativland?” than any of those hapless interviewers.

Yet there is, as they say, an escape from all this noise. Just as Joyce muses in one archival interview that the human brain will instinctively make connections between two unrelated sound bytes, Worsley guides us toward emotional throughlines on a nearly subliminal level. In one poignant scene, Wills films Lyons and Joyce as they help him move out of the house we’ve come to know through his own home movies. Between their sniping and their inside jokes, we learn more here about the group’s dynamic than we ever could via the Behind the Music treatment. These guys clearly drive each other crazy, but they also understand each other like no one else.

Later, the film becomes more overtly melancholy: Joyce passed away in 2015 (as did pivotal early member Ian Allen) and Lyons followed just over a year later. Each of these deaths is presented with appropriate gravity (though not without characteristic humor– the band offered authentic baggies of Joyce’s cremains with their 2016 release The Chopping Channel), and the question is raised how the group could continue without these key contributors. But, as evidenced by all of those non-answers, Negativland has always been as much an ongoing project as it is a “band.” The film ends on a triumphant note, with the remaining members performing for a post-pandemic crowd, masked but unwavering. Over the film’s final montage, they repeat a sample that might well serve as Negativland’s mantra: “And we get into a loop / Which goes on forever / And we get into a loop / Which goes on forever / And we get into a loop / Which goes on forever.” Negativland certainly knows a thing or two about loops, and, at this point, going on forever feels like a distinct possibility.

* – As a former record store clerk, I would be remiss if I did not offer my two cents on a proper “gateway album.” 1987’s Escape from Noise is their “designated classic,” but I usually start people on their cola-themed 1997 concept-album Dispepsi, which is perhaps their funniest and most accessible work. Alternately, 2019’s True False and 2020’s The World Will Decide are as good as anything the group has ever done, and focus on such contemporary issues as fake news, AI, and social media.

Stand By for Failure: A Documentary About Negativland
dir. Ryan Worsley
99 min.

Screened at Brattle Theatre as part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here for schedule and pass info, and click here to follow the Hassle’s continuing coverage!

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