An award-winning documentary about the addiction spiral that nearly killed Todd Zalkins—as it previously did his longtime buddy and Sublime front man Bradley Nowell—gets a much deserved third screening at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival today.
The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins is set to roll at 5 p.m. at The Triangle in Costa Mesa. Friday night’s first NBFF screening at the Lido Theatre in Newport Beach “was incredible,” Zalkins tells the Weekly. “I believe we had 600 people there and tremendous feedback from the viewers.”
That spurred a second NBFF screening at The Triangle Monday night, which was obviously such a seat filler that a third show was added. Already awarded best documentary at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, The Long Way Back will leave Orange County for other fests across the country before returning home during the Long Beach International Film Festival’s Aug. 1-4 run. (Follow the movie’s trek at thelongwaybackfilm.com or on its Facebook page.)
Written by Zalkins and directed by Richard Yelland, who is perhaps best known for making short films about surfers such as Greg Long and Rob Machado, The Long Way Back is that rare film that will delight hardcore fans of a band (in this case Sublime), locals (because of all the Long Beach and Orange County touchstones) and everyone else (due to it being just so fucking compelling).
It’s also fucking important: Sprinkled in between the concert, archival and behind-the-scenes footage that chronicles Sublime’s miraculous rise in the popular music industry are recent news clips about the country’s prescription drug epidemic, title cards with statistics like, “5.25 people die every hour from an opioid overdose” and even a snippet of President Obama saying at an anti-drug summit, “I think the public doesn’t fully appreciate the scope of the problem.”
Fully appreciating the scope of the problem are the Zalkins and Nowell families, as do other families across America struggling through the substance abuse nightmare.
Much of Zalkins’ nightmare was covered in my colleague Nick Schou’s 2014 profile piece, where, as in the film, we learn our subject grew up in Belmont Shore, where he befriended future Sublime bass player Eric Wilson, whose family home was “80 yards” from Z-Man’s. Later, at Rogers Middle School, Zalkins buddied up with Sublime’s future drummer Bud Gaugh. The trio, along with massively gifted singer/guitarist/songwriter Nowell, would go on to surf along the coast and slam at punk rock shows before any of them envisioned selling tens of millions of records.
Sublime was formed when the players were in their late teens, and though Zalkins was not in that lineup, he literally was the face of the band’s breakout song “Date Rape,” which is said to be the most requested tune in KROQ history. Zalkins starred in the 1995 music video as a date rapist who later receives jailhouse justice courtesy of bunkmate Ron Jeremy.
By the time “Date Rape” was in heavy MTV rotation, Zalkins and Sublime members had graduated from years of hearty partying to struggling with addiction.
That’s. When. Things. Got. Out. Of. Con-trol.
On May 25, 1996, just months after landing a deal with MCA Records, Z-Man unwittingly attended what would be the band’s last show in Petaluma. Before passing out in the wee hours, Zalkins was talking with Nowell, who mentioned he missed his wife and son. Sublime’s leader tried calling at 4 a.m. to extend the conversation, but Zalkins was out cold. Nowell soon was also … literally. He overdosed on heroin early that same morning. He was only 28.
Nowell’s death was not a wake-up call for Zalkins, quite the opposite. He descended further and further into addiction, even after moving to San Clemente and becoming a successful insurance salesman. We discover in the documentary that his turnaround finally came when he entered a drug-treatment facility in Laguna Beach in February 2007, by which time he had been addicted to Oxycontin and other painkillers for 17 years. Dr. Daniel Headrick says on screen it is amazing Zalkins was still alive as his was the worst prescription pill addiction (with cocaine and alcohol chasers) the treatment professional had ever seen.
Zalkins went on to pen the 2010 autobiography Dying for Triplicate and carve out a new career speaking to anyone who would listen, and especially young people, about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse. Among those who have heard his message and sworn off drugs after becoming dependent on them is Nowell’s son Jakob, who is a member of the band LAW. It is heart-wrenching in The Long Way Back to hear Jakob’s grandfather—and Brad’s dad—Jim “Papa” Nowell saying he barely endured losing his son and could not endure also losing his grandson.
Papa, Jakob and Zalkins’ relationship is touching, but among the others who show up in the film cheering on Z-Man’s sobriety are Gaugh and his Long Beach Dub Allstars mates Opie Ortiz and Jack Manes.
It’s a truly powerful documentary, and you sure as shit aren’t going to find one set to a better soundtrack.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.