You can’t call yourself a fan of hardcore punk without having at least heard of the Circle Jerks. They’re mandatory listening for anyone getting into the genre. Historically speaking, the band tends to get overshadowed in punk history books and documentaries by bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, the latter of which Circle Jerks’ vocalist Keith Morris was the original frontman. This documentary, directed by David Markey, shines a light on one of the earliest and most criminally underrated bands to come out of the L.A. punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Markey, a friend and fan of the band, has been filming them since the early ‘80s. This documentary traces their history better than anyone else could hope to do, mixing archival footage with interviews from virtually every living person whoever took the stage as a member of the band. Keith Morris and Greg Hetson, the only two permanent members of the band throughout its tumultuous existence, are featured in multiple interviews, along with founding drummer “Lucky” Lehrer, and later members Earl Liberty and Zander Schloss, who each handled bass duties at points in the Jerks’ history. Interviews from outside sources Henry Rollins, J. Mascis, and Greg Graffin add color and perspective to the impact the Circle Jerks and their music had on the exploding hardcore punk scene.
Though sometimes grainy, I enjoyed the archival live footage of the band, most shot by Markey himself, and how the live footage is interspersed with interviews to tell the story of the band. The interviews themselves were great, detailing the behind the scenes history of the band, and the revolving-door nature of their lineup over the years. There’s a bit of a jumping back and forth in the early part of the film that makes it difficult to follow the story of how the band came together and their early existence. I had to watch this part a second time to properly understand the chronology of events.
From there, though, the rest of the documentary proceeds relatively smoothly, tracing the band’s history all the way up to their aborted attempt at recording a new album in 2009, which led to Morris’ formation of the band Off! with Burning Brides frontman Dimitri Coats, producing those recording sessions.
It is clear in watching this documentary that director Markey is a great fan of the band. His attention to detail and drive to document everything shines through in every interview and in the live footage. Reaching out and interviewing virtually everyone involved in the band over the years took a lot of time and commitment, and it shows through in the quality of the finished product.
That said, Markey never lets his love for the band color the story. From members’ battles with drug use to tensions between members over participation in other bands over the years, and the unresolved situation that was their attempt at a 2009 return album, Markey gets everything on tape as members bare their frustrations, angers, and fears, felt over nearly thirty years of making music together. What emerges is one of the most honest accounts of a legendary band ever set on film. It’s a story that longtime and newer fans alike should check out. Highly recommended viewing. –Paul J. Comeau (MVD Visual)