X: The Unheard Music

X: The Unheard Music (1986) movie poster

(1986) dir. W.T. Morgan
viewed: 05/03/09

I discovered this movie about 5 years ago while I was on hiatus from writing on the film diary.  X, the Los Angeles punk band, has been a favorite of mine for years, and five years ago, this movie was a bit on the forgotten side, available only in out-of-print VHS copies.  Via eBay, I’d acquired one, and I was utterly surprised by how interesting a documentary had been made about the band, something unique, strange, timely, and creative.  And that it was at that point a relic of sorts.

During that time, I’d actually watched the film several times, and finally a couple years ago, when the film was finally released on DVD, had picked up a copy for myself.  I do not collect many DVD’s and many of the ones I have by happenstance, but this was one that I’d bought because I really, really liked it a great deal.  But oddly, I guess that I hadn’t gotten around to watching it again for all this time because I don’t think that I’ve actually written about it here ever.

Comprised of footage shot from 1980-1983 or so, mixed with lots of found footage (old film pieces of all sorts), and varied animated moments, still images, the film is very inventive, not just interviews or old imagery, not just concert footage.  It’s a mixture of all sort of things.  Really, quite unlike any other documentary that I can think of.  And while the film does give the background of the bands origins and talks about their trouble landing gigs and getting record companies and radio stations interested in them, it also works as a critique of the industry and the popular culture of the world from which X was spawned, a riper mixture of images from the early 1980’s and the streets of Los Angeles.

The film actually opens with the reading (in character) of a letter that Exene’s sister had apparently written to Slash records about their first album.  It’s a sort of poetic, semi-psychotic note about how she was the subject of most of their songs and how meaningful that was…of course, it’s only through the rest of the film, by way of a brief glimpse of the actual letter, that you realize whose “voice” this is.  It’s a strange sort of semi-reenactment.

Of course, this is the orginal band in their true heydey, releasing their album Under the Big Black Sun and even developing material for More Fun in the New World, so all the music is from their prime.  The film doesn’t linger on personal histories, but it does demonstrate the musicality of John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D.J. Bonebrake and talks briefly about the death of Exene’s sister which influenced Under the Big Black Sun so much.

I think it’s quite a wonderful film, not simply because of the music and seeing the band in their youthful prime, but rather because it is also such an interesting and inventive piece of work itself.  Perhaps it is saying something that the film took more time in post-production than it did in filming, but it’s a great model of documentary style, something beyond disseminating information or capturing a subject, but a construct, non-narrative, non-linear that stands quite on its own as art.

I don’t know that W.T. Morgan went on to do much else, but there is so much going on, it’s hard to fathom.  One of the sequences that is quite stunning is when the title song, “The Unheard Music” is played (the track from their first album), the images that move along against it are of a house that has been cut into pieces to be moved on flat-bed trucks, slowly driving through the Los Angeles night, past buildings, street signs, traffic lights, stopping for a train.  Images of the passing scenery through the house windows speak of some melancholy dislocation of home and place, shifting in a way that homes were never meant to.  It’s a strange juxtaposition, like many in the film, something just weird, yet significant.

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