Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Ballad of Johnny Burma

Props to Eric for giving a heads-up on the recent DVD release of Not a Photograph, a documentary on Boston's beloved Mission of Burma. Taking in a viewing a few days ago, here are my thoughts.

First and foremost: I'm not a huge fan of Burma's work, but I'm a fan. Though last year's The Obliterati is really good, the Signals, Calls and Marches EP is still my favorite. That said, I wasn't watching the documentary in hopes this would be a concert film. I honestly wanted to know how in the hell did this band get back together.

Based on what I've read in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life and interviews with the band post-reunion, their break-up was not an ugly ordeal. If anything, it was a sad one spurred by vocalist/guitarist Roger Miller's tinnitus. Not a Photograph fills in the gaps as far as what each of the three main band members have been up to. Miller has been working on music, bassist/vocalist Clint Conley has worked in TV, and drummer Peter Prescott works at a record store. Elusive tape manipulator Martin Swope chose not to participate in the reunion and no real concrete reason is given in the film. If anything, the myth around Swope continues.

What made the documentary really worthwhile was its honest portrayal of these guys. Conley, a fully-domesticated father and husband, had not played a lot of music since the band's break-up. His wife never knew he was in Mission of Burma. Also nice is Prescott's confession in a taxi that he's going to miss playing with the band after the initial reunion shows are over. Though the band has played many shows since then and are permanently reunited, I was glad to see this scene in the film.

On a personal note, I found the interviews with Azerrad and Moby were a great touch. Moby was the guy that introduced me to Burma via his cover of "That's When I Reach For My Revolver." A short time later (maybe less than a year later), most of the Burma catalog was reissued by Rykodisc and I picked them up. Reading the band's story in Our Band Could Be Your Life, Azerrad made me really care about these guys as people. So having him in the film totally made sense. His polite explanation of Nirvana and their years of existence to Conley's mother is pure gold.

Make no mistake, at seventy minutes long, Not a Photograph could have been longer. More explanation about Rick Harte and his Ace of Hearts label issuing their material could have been covered some more. As a matter of fact, it felt like the band's seminal recorded output is briefly touched upon. But still, a documentary about Mission of Burma is better than no documentary at all.

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