Saturday, January 12, 2008

Indie Film Review: Rebel Studz

I don’t often review films on this blog, but occasionally I’d like to be able to comment on indie films when I see them. A flmmaker of one such indie film contacted me recently and asked me to take a look at his latest work, a short mockumentary called Rebel Studz.

Smart indie filmmakers capitalize on their limitations. One of the ways they do this is to make a mockumentary. I can explain why because I too have done this. When you have little to no money, it’s hard to tell a visually compelling story. But a mockumentary lets you use your limitations to your advantage, as part of the visual style. You only have access to a digital video camera? Well, a lot of documentaries are shot on video? Shaky handheld footage because you’re shooting on the run? No problem, it’s part of the aesthetic. Limited locations, lots of talking heads? That’s part of the documentary look.

G.R. Claveria and D.S. Flores show themselves to be smart indie filmmakers because Rebel Studz capitalizes on these limitations as I’ve noted above.

Rebel Studz plays like one of those VH-1 Behind the Music pseudo documentaries – you know, they’re part fact and part P.R. I imagine the publicists working with bands featured on that show must’ve fought to get them featured. I remember watching the Behind the Music episode featuring 70s teen idol Leif Garrett and thinking how odd it was that this guy was opening up all his pain for this silly show for VH-1, including a meeting between him and his former best friend who Garrett paralyzed in a drunken car wreck years before. I call it silly, but of course it was compelling, and it struck me that this was a way for Garrett, who was recording new music at the time, to get back into the spotlight.

Rebel Studz is a lot like one of those episodes, and a little like the excellent parody that The Simpsons did of Behind the Music (I believe it was called The Simpsons: Behind the Laughter). Rebel Studz details the semi-meteoric rise, brief fall, and rise again of the titular country rock band through archival footage with voice-over and through interviews with musical competitors, hangers-on, former and current associates, and would-be lovers.

A number of these interviewees give solid and funny performances (and a few, as with any small indie film, are somewhat less than solid).

A lot of what I liked about the film wasn’t in the main story but was in the background. During one of the interviews with a woman who is a former or current lover of a band member, her little daughter literally plays with a set of knives in the background, showcasing the woman’s clear lack of parenting skills in an amusing way (later, she notices this and stops the girl, but I thought that little bit was unnecessary and that the gag was funnier as a piece of the background).

Another not-so-obvious thing the film does well is the sheer amount of faked archival footage of the band. Speaking again as someone who has made a mockumentary, one of the real challenges is taking the time to shoot all this stuff that, in a documentary, looks like “archival footage.” A real documentarian would cull all this footage and use the best stuff, while a mockumentarian has to shoot all that. Many smaller mockumentaries fail because they can’t or don’t take the time to do this, but Claveria and Flores smartly spent a lot of time shooting scenes in various locations with the band to give them an existence outside the confines of the 10 minute film.

Another thing that works here is the band’s attempt to be successful at, well, everything. They are a successful band, but to stay in the public eye, they make a TV pilot and also a comic book. Both of these efforts fail in amusing ways. Incidentally, the scenes from the Rebel Studz TV show are one of the elements of the film that don’t work as well. It’s very hard to recreate the look of a TV show, and the Rebel Studz TV show uses too much handheld camera work and looks a little too much like what it is: a low-budget film’s attempt to mimic a TV show.

The ending is a little anti-climactic and repetitive (the band’s final successful venture is repeated three times over the course of about a minute, making it seem like the filmmakers are afraid we’ll forget what happened). But overall, the film works well and has some subtle laughs via the form of the film and some bigger ones via the obvious set-up.

My other criticism is that the members of the actual band never emerge as strong characters. The audience never gets to know them or understand them as individuals. Perhaps this was intentional. They are products of the media and are represented through the lens of what other people say about them. But the film doesn’t give us a sense that the band members are particularly reluctant to participate in this documentary about them; in fact, the show up in the final scene, celebrating their triumph. So, given that the film is about them, it would have been nice to let them emerge as individuals, even if their personalities or quirks are presented to us through mediated sources.

As far as technical aspects, it’s a little hard to comment on that because the copy of the film I watched was on YouTube. In my view, even cheap video looks good on a computer screen, while sharply shot 35mm film looks lousy on YouTube. I’m pretty sure this film was shot in a traditional video format and not with a “film look” which is certainly in keeping with the style and nature of the piece.

Claveria is also the director of MockFest, a film festival in L.A. dedicated to showcasing mockumentaries of all types, so he clearly has an affection for this form, and he has worked in it more than once. Using his knowledge and experience, he has created a witty and effective film.

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