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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. 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.


Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…