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“Better Than Something: Jay Reatard” may be the best rock doc since “Dig”

“Better Than Something: Jay Reatard” may be the best rock doc since “Dig” (photo)

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Not long before Jay Reatard was found dead in 2010 at his Memphis home at the age of 29, filmmakers Ian Markiewicz and Alex Hammond spent time interviewing and shooting the punk-rock firebrand for a short promotional film. In spite of Reatard’s combative public image — created by sensationalistic media coverage of his intense and confrontational live performances — Markiewicz and Hammond found him to be affable and contemplative, as he vividly recalled a short but eventful life distinguished by poverty, alienation, and an indomitable spirit to transcend his circumstances.

After Reatard’s death, Markiewicz and Hammond turned to his friends and family for the rest of the story. The result is “Better Than Something: Jay Reatard,” a sad, exhilarating, and ultimately inspiring documentary about a complicated young man whose life ended just as he appeared to be overcoming his demons. Combining interviews with astonishing performance footage dating back to Reatard’s teen years, “Better Than Something” traces Reatard evolution from the aimless anger of adolescence to something resembling inner peace as he was approaching 30. It’s a difficult journey — and Something doesn’t sugar-coat how difficult Reatard himself could be — but an incredibly moving one. “Better Than Something” is the best rock documentary since “Dig.”

“Better Than Something” is currently playing the festival circuit — including a screening Aug. 11 at the Don’t Knock the Rock Film Festival, which marks the film’s Los Angeles premiere — and is without distribution. IFC.com spoke with Markiewicz and Hammond about the film and how they got Reatard to open himself up.

IFC: You didn’t know Jay Reatard before you began the film. How did you come to be involved with the project?

Ian Markiewicz: Jay was getting kind of pissed at the press. Any time anyone would do a story on him, it was just about how fucked up he was, and going down to Memphis and getting messed up with him. Jay had an idea: Let’s do a film. He wanted to somehow clear the ear or tell his side or whatever it was. They looked at a few different filmmakers, but for whatever reason, when he met with us he said, “This is it.”

Alex Hammond: One of the things he said during that interview was that he didn’t want a fan to make the film. He wanted someone from the outside, to drop in and get an honest picture of his story. Two weeks later we were flying down to Memphis

IFC: One of the most disturbing sequences in the film occurs when you’re driving around Memphis, and touring Jay’s childhood home and haunts. At one house, he tells an anecdote about neighboring drug dealers busting in on crack addicts in the middle of raping a woman–which occurred on the other side of a shared wall in a duplex where teenaged Jay was staying with his mother and younger sister. Was it difficult to get him to be so open about his troubled background?

IM: The first day or two, we were just hanging out and shooting, and he was talking about being a touring musician and selling records and what the business was like from his perspective. So we didn’t launch into the really heavy stuff right way. But Jay was definitely like, “I want to take you and show you stuff.”

AH: We had no idea that was coming. That was incredibly shocking to us. We had no idea what we were getting into. He had such energy when we were there. We were rarely probing or asking questions. We’d bring up one question, and it would be Jay going on and on. He was so entertaining. He was a storyteller. He had a way of engaging you.

IFC: Your film started out as a short called “Waiting For Something.” At what point did you realize that you had enough for a feature?

AH: At first they were like, “This is going to be like an EPK,” but Jay didn’t want a typical EPK. It started out as an eight to 10 minute piece, and then when we came back we said, “Holy shit, we don’t have a 10-minute short, we have a film here.”

IM: He kept bringing up this “warts and all” idea. He was like, “This has to be raw and rough.” He kept saying things like that, and it turned out like that because he wanted to unload his whole story. He just really unleashed. That’s the only word for it.

IFC: Obviously the nature of the project changed after Jay passed away. Did you begin seeking out his friends and family members immediately afterward?

AH: The moment we heard about his death, we weren’t thinking about the film. Two months later, his friends were doing a big tribute show for him at South By Southwest.

IM: To be honest, I felt like, I don’t know if I can handle looking at that stuff right now. It felt very dark at that point. And people were saying, you guys really have to be down here for this show. It kind of snuck up on us, like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing this now.” When we started doing it, you could just feel how palpable the emotion was coming off everybody. The wrong thing to do would be to wait a bunch of years, and then do something, when everybody’s feelings weren’t as strong. It seemed more in the spirit of what Jay did, being in the heat of the moment.

IFC: The sense you get at the end of the film is that Jay was in a good place in the months before his death, which makes his passing all the more sad. Was that your impression?

IM: He was stressing to us, I’m not a huge artist, I’m not making millions. But I’m doing what I like to do and doing well enough to live comfortably in Memphis, where I like to be. It felt to him that he had achieved some big goal. He knew that there was still work to be done — he wasn’t complacent — but it seemed like he was in a good place at the time.

AM: When we were with him, he had just come off from a long tour. So he had this little window of I think two weeks, where he was back in Memphis. Then it was, I think, back down to South America. You look at the tour dates, it was nuts. He was excited about all that. It was definitely a positive energy coming from him.

IFC: What do you want people to take from “Better Than Something”? Why does Jay Reatard’s music matter?

IM: His music is very pure. It’s very much an expression of where he was at and what he was thinking. He was obsessed with finding new sounds and finding new music that expressed what he felt. If there was an audience, there was an audience. And if there was not, I don’t know that Jay cared.

Leave your remembrances of Jay Reatard in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Grow TFU

Adulting Like You Mean It

Commuters makes its debut on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Jared Warner, Nick Ciavarella, and Tim Dean were once a part of Murderfist, a group of comedy writers, actors, producers, parents, and reluctant adults. Together with InstaMiniSeries’s Nikki Borges, they’re making their IFC Comedy Crib debut with the refreshingly-honest and joyfully-hilarious Commuters. The webseries follows thirtysomethings Harris and Olivia as they brave the waters of true adulthood, and it’s right on point.

Jared, Nick, Nikki and Tim were kind enough to answer a few questions about Commuters for us. Here’s a snippet of that conversation…

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IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Nick: Two 30-somethings leave the Brooklyn life behind, and move to the New Jersey suburbs in a forced attempt to “grow up.” But they soon find out they’ve got a long way to go to get to where they want to be.

IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jared: It’s a show about how f*cking stupid people who think they are smart can be.

IFC: What’s your origin story? When did you all meet and how long have you been working together?

Jared: Nick, Tim, and I were all in the sketch group Murderfist since, what, like 2004? God. Anyway, Tim and Nick left the group to pursue other frivolous things, like children and careers, but we all enjoyed writing together and kept at it. We were always more interested in storytelling than sketch comedy lends itself to, which led to our webseries Jared Posts A Personal. That was a show about being in your 20s and embracing the chaos of being young in the city. Commuters is the counterpoint, i guess. Our director Adam worked at Borders (~THE PAST!!~) with Tim, came out to a Murderfist show once, and we’ve kept him imprisoned ever since.

IFC: What was the genesis of Commuters?

Tim: Jared had an idea for a series about the more realistic, less romantic aspects of being in a serious relationship.  I moved out of the city to the suburbs and Nick got engaged out in LA.   We sort of combined all of those facets and Commuters was the end result.

IFC: How would Harris describe Olivia?

Jared: Olivia is the smartest, coolest, hottest person in the world, and Harris can’t believe he gets to be with her, even though she does overreact to everything and has no chill. Like seriously, ease up. It doesn’t always have to be ‘a thing.’

IFC: How would Olivia describe Harris?

Nikki:  Harris is smart, confident with a dry sense of humor but he’s also kind of a major chicken shit…. Kind of like if Han Solo and Barney Rubble had a baby.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Nikki:  I think this is the most accurate portrayal of what a modern relationship looks like. Expectations for what your life is ‘supposed to look like’ are confusing and often a let down but when you’re married to your best friend, it’s going to be ok because you will always find a way to make each other laugh.

IFC: Is the exciting life of NYC twentysomethings a sweet dream from which we all must awake, or is it a nightmare that we don’t realize is happening until it’s over?

Tim: Now that i’ve spent time living in the suburbs, helping to raise a two year old, y’all city folk have no fucking clue how great you’ve got it.

Nikki: I think of it similar to how I think about college. There’s a time and age for it to be glorious but no one wants to hang out with that 7th year senior. Luckily, NYC is so multifaceted that you can still have an exciting life here but it doesn’t have to be just what the twentysomethings are doing (thank god).

Jared: New York City is a garbage fire.

See the whole season of Commuters right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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C'mon Fellas

A Man Mansplains To Men

Why Baroness von Sketch Show is a must-see.

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Mansplaining is when a man takes it upon himself to explain something to a woman that she already knows. It happens a lot, but it’s not going to happen here. Ladies, go ahead and skip to the end of this post to watch a free episode of IFC’s latest addition, Baroness von Sketch Show.

However, if you’re a man, you might actually benefit from a good mansplanation. So take a knee, lean in, and absorb the following wisdom.

No Dicks

Baroness von Sketch Show is made entirely by women, therefore this show isn’t focused on men. Can you believe it? I know what you’re thinking: how will we know when to laugh if the jokes aren’t viewed through the dusty lens of the patriarchy? Where are the thinly veiled penis jokes? Am I a bad person? In order: you will, nowhere, and yes.

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Huge Balls

Did you know that there’s more to life than poop jokes, sex jokes, body part jokes? I mean, those things are all really good things, natch, and totally edgy. But Baroness von Sketch Show does something even edgier. It holds up a brutal funhouse mirror to our everyday life. This is a bulls**t world we made, fellas.

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Oh Canada

After you watch the Canadian powerhouses of Baroness von Sketch Show and think to yourself “Dear god, this is so real” and “I’ve gotta talk about this,” do yourself a favor and think a-boot your options: Refrain from sharing your sage wisdom with any woman anywhere (believe us, she gets it). Instead, tell a fellow bro and get the mansplaining out of your system while also spreading the word about a great show.

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Dudes, that’s the deal.
Women, start reading again here:


Check out the preview episode of Baroness von Sketch Show and watch the series premiere August 2 on IFC.

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Happy Tears

Binge Don’t Cringe

Catch up on episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia.

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Photo Credit: GIFs via GIPHY

A brain can only take so much.

Every five minutes, all day, every day, ludicrously stressful headlines push our mental limits as we struggle to adapt to a reality that seems increasingly less real. What’s a mind to do when simple denial just isn’t good enough anymore?

Radical suggestion: repeal and replace. And by that we mean take all the bad news that keeps you up at night, press pause, and substitute it with some genuine (not nervous, for a change) laughter. Here are some of the issues on our mind.

Gender Inequality

Feminist bookstore owners by day, still feminist bookstore owners by night, Toni and Candace show the male gaze who’s boss. Learn about their origin story (SPOILER: there’s an epic dance battle) and see what happens when their own brand of empowerment gets out of hand.

Healthcare

From Candace’s heart attack to the rise of the rawvolution, this Portlandia episode proves that healthcare is vital.

Peaceful Protests

Too many online petitions, too little time? Get WOKE with Fred and Carrie when they learn how to protest.

What Could Have Been

Can’t say the name “Clinton” without bursting into tears? Documentary Now!’s masterfully political “The Bunker” sheds a cozy new light on the house that Bill and Hill built. Just pretend you don’t know how the story really ends.

Fake News

A healthy way to break the high-drama news cycle is to switch over to “Dronez”, which has all the thrills of ubiquitous adventure journalism without any of the customary depression.

The more you watch, the better you feel. So get started on past episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia right now at IFC.com and the IFC app.

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