The idea that punk rock is less about a sound than an ideal is continually stressed by We Jam Econo, a new documentary about '80s underground legends The Minutemen. During an era of steadily narrowing definitions of what punk rock really meant, these three San Pedro outcasts insisted on throwing anything and everything into their sonic stew, filling songs that were half as long as the norm with twice as many ideas. This willingness to experiment and, more important, to be obdurately devoted to individual expression made the band pioneers of the American post-punk scene. The fact that the three of them started with little or no musical skills made them gods to thousands of kids across the country.
Director Tim Irwin captures the sense of respect that surrounded The Minutemen during their day, but it's not hard to see that what was once respect has due primarily to the early death of co-founder D. Boon turned into something weirdly worshipful. Greg Ginn, Richard Hell, Joe Baiza, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and more than 40 other luminaries and associates chime in on the band's meaning. Hearing Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea rhapsodize about The Minutemen is touching (especially when he's talking about "loose" and "tight" guitar tunings); enduring Thurston Moore is painful.
Unsurprisingly, it's the interviews with members George Hurley and (especially) Mike Watt that are the most compelling. Hurley still looks like a surfer (though he's cut his hair, thank God) and Watt still looks like he's carrying Boon around on his scrawny shoulders. The intense bond between Watt and Boon was (and is) legendary as is to be expected of two childhood friends who crossed the country playing punk rock to people who mostly didn't care and Watt's savant-type memory is pushed into emotional overdrive as he reminisces about the band's music and recordings.
Irwin's film finds its center in Watt's gentle stories (and rightfully so), but it's in the collection of live performances from throughout the band's career that We Jam Econo gathers up its energy. Irwin is decidedly unstingy in using this footage, making the film seem nearly half-documentary, half-concert video. The effect is astounding and puts the band fully into context: Even now, there's no group out there like The Minutemen.