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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

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

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.