Most rock-centric documentaries fall into one of two camps: the hagiographical tributes to artists that frame and justify a performer’s failings within the larger picture of his battles for success, and the warts-and-all examinations that tend to use the excesses of said performers as evidence of the inherent vapidity in the field. A good example of the former is pretty much any episode you ever saw of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” which today airs sporadic episodes profiling chart-toppers like 50 Cent but between 1997 and 2006 would spend 44 minutes running every conceivable artist through the same template of success-excess-redemption. For the producers of the series, drug abuse and infighting were an end in themselves. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got fascinating documentaries like Dig!, a riveting look at the egotistical brawling between the members of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. The film is utterly engrossing, but the focus is less on the characters as people and more on them as players in a purportedly inevitable drama, as if no two men who pick up a guitar to try and become pop stars could or should ever get along.
All of which explains some of what makes The Other F Word so wonderful. Director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins examines the lives of several punk- and pop-rockers from the perspective of middle-age responsibility, specifically the change that sets in when these formerly freewheeling men become fathers and are confronted with the reality that they are no longer living for themselves. It’s not a work of blind cheerleading: Nevins doesn’t shy away from the way some of the young fathers still pursue the rush of alcohol or other risks, despite their insistence on broader change. But it’s also not a hatchet job: Nevins uses those moments of personal failure as evidence that the men are still struggling to change, which is infinitely more intellectually honest than just labeling them hypocrites and moving on. The film is an honest and winning look at a group of guys who have come to realize that being a musician isn’t just their hobby but a job, and one that requires them to plan income and expenditures like the rest of us working schlubs. They’re performers and characters dealing with the drama handed down to them, and they’re doing the best they can with what they have.
Nevins’ documentary is also miles better than so many others because she actually knows how to organize material. Instead of a rambling investigation into rock quasi-stardom that would get bogged down after an hour of rough transitions, Nevins hangs the narrative on Jim Lindberg, the lead singer of Pennywise, whose world-spanning tour acts as a kind of time-bomb for Lindberg’s inevitable moment of clarity about the tolls the road is taking on him. The film kicks off with his leaving for the tour and counts off a few days of it before happily splitting off into other areas, from the birth of the SoCal punk scene to the personal lives of musicians like Mark Hoppus (Blink-182), Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Ron Reyes (Black Flag), Duane Peters (U.S. Bombs), and others. Flea, of Red Hot Chili Peppers and general shirtlessness fame, turns out to be downright poetic when talking about the changes he made in his life when he became a father. Nevins is an expert at capturing these men in moments of utter honesty, and she knows enough to realize that when a heavily tattooed man is weeping tears of joy talking about his baby girl, all you have to do is hold focus and let him go.
Because this is, deep down, a tearjerker and therapy session. Lindberg had a relatively peaceful childhood, but Nevins uses certain interviews to make a compelling argument that these men are trying to be good fathers because their own were awful, abusive, or absent. Her interviews with Everclear’s Art Alexakis are particularly painful, and the sheer tonnage of the hours he’s put in with mental health professionals are evident in the dull sheen with which he describes a childhood defined by a dad who walked out and the bullies who sexually assaulted him. Some of the footage is cut with Alexakis singing his song “Father of Mine,” a 1997 radio hit that deals surprisingly frankly with his feelings of abandonment and anger at having a crushing boyhood. The Other F Word moves with grace from a comedy of manners, focused on the juxtaposition of aging punkers picking up Barbie dolls, to a moving drama about the lengths these men will go to just to make sure their kids never catch sight of the kind of youth they were lucky to survive.
Yet for all that, Nevins’ film never gets mired down. It’s tightly edited and scored with great songs from the bands involved, and the director never lingers too long on a tragedy without scooting along to something else. In its own way, the film plays like a great mix tape, moving from loud to quiet, sad to happy, mellow to upbeat, all while conveying a larger emotional message. For the men involved, that means aging and acceptance, even at the expense of the lives they used to want to lead. Nevins’ film is an uplifting, engaging look at a group of artists willing to redefine themselves for a cause greater than their own self-interest, even if they have to make up the rules as the go.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.