In the film Songs for Cassavetes, a member of the band the Hi-Fives tells his audience, "It's easy to tour. Just get in the car and drive around." He's pretty much describing the birth of the film. Fellow Californian Marvin Miranda heard about a guy named Justin Mitchell who was driving home from Indiana—where he'd studied anthropology at Notre Dame University but sneaked in film courses on the side—and hitched a ride. They talked about nothing but music the whole way. By the time the car crossed the Arizona-California border, they'd decided the punk music they loved so well would be the subject of Mitchell's debut film.
But Songs for Cassavetes is more than another grainy rock flick. It is for today's kids what The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years is for old headbangers—without drunks or Lemmy's mom wandering around. Cutting between live footage and interviews, Mitchell's film proves that today's music really does matter. In the interviews, musicians get free rein to go off on rants, something that helps flesh out segments on the Riot Grrrl movement and selling out. There are also truly bizarre moments, such as the Make Up's Ian Svenonius jitterbugging with El Vez while karaokeing to John Lennon's "Power to the People."
Mitchell traces his music appreciation back to the seven-inch discs of "corporate rock" he pulled out of R&R Magazine, where his godfather worked. Film is also in Mitchell's genes: his father was a cameraman for 60 Minutes. In 1996, the younger Mitchell borrowed Dad's equipment to film the Peechees at the now-defunct Jabberjaw. That became the first raw footage for his film, which is named in honor of John Cassavetes, the late actor/independent filmmaker who once said that people lose their spirit at age 21 when they stop being kids and start being adults.
Some initial reviews have knocked Cassavetes for only following a certain style of music by such bands as Sleater-Kinney, Henry's Dress, Tullycraft and Further. Mitchell insisted that he sought a diverse representation but ultimately had to go with "whoever was interested and wanted to do it. We didn't knock on people's doors."
A casual attitude helped them win more access to the bands they did follow and allowed more candid moments on the screen. "Any hard approach would not have worked," Mitchell explained.
Like most punk bands—past and present—Mitchell relied on inexperienced artists and his own wallet to pay for the whole bloody thing. His "crew" consisted of Mitchell, his sister, his girlfriend and Miranda.
Mitchell never sought handouts or corporate backing. There was no production company. He saved money by living with his parents from 1995 to 1998 and funneled funds to his project through his work with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foun-dation. Mitchell would collect just enough to go to a venue and shoot a scene, and then start saving up again for follow-up shoots. That explains why it took four years to get Cassavetes in the can.
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"It was totally worth it," he said. "It was about getting a good documentation that would be worth something."
But his movie wasn't put in proper context until 1997, when he went to Olympia, Washington's YoYo A GoGo festival—a showcase for many of today's punk bands—and ran into Calvin Johnson of Dub Narcotic Sound System and the founder of K Records. Arguably the "godfather" of punk because of his involvement dating back to the original movement, Johnson consented to an interview, and his footage serves beautifully to put Cassavetes in a rock-historical context.
"It was the Reagan era," Johnson notes at the beginning of the film. "Things were so conservative. There was no crossing over. There was what we were doing, the underground, and then there was Huey Lewis and the News. Nothing in between."
Mitchell takes solace in Johnson's remarks. Today's mainstream music sucks just as hard as old Huey's did, and with George W. Bush in the White House, Mitchell knows "there is going to be some great punk rock soon."