Reeling in ‘The Story of Fishbone (Boston Globe review)

Jan 11, 2012

Reeling in ‘The Story of Fishbone’

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

The best thing about “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone’’ is that it really is the story of Fishbone. It’s a hearty, thoughtful, smartly assembled, vaguely complete documentary about a rock band that, even by the standards of out-there musical acts, seemed out there both in the mid-1980s and even now. Fishbone was a sextet shaped by both the isolation of Los Angeles’s predominately black South Central neighborhood and the white public schools its members were bused to. Angelo Moore, frontman and one of the original members of Fishbone. Erin Flynn/Pale Griot Films, Angelo Moore, frontman and one of the original members of Fishbone.

As more than one of the movie’s famous talking heads observes, the music the band made didn’t have a genre. It was its own thing - a catholic fusion of ska, punk, the untamable exuberance of bands like Parliament and Funkadelic and the out-of-body jazz of, say, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders. You can see and hear who influenced Fishbone and whom they influenced - No Doubt and Gogol Bordello, for starters. But true stardom never seemed to find Fishbone (its fish-skeleton logo might have been more famous than the band itself; Michele Bachmann’s visit last month to Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show put Fishbone back in the news after the show’s house band, the Roots, played an unprintable Fishbone song as Bachmann was introduced). By the early 1990s, real fame always seemed so close for the band. But the band fell apart before it had adequately finished rising. “Everyday Sunshine’’ makes a compelling, compassionate case for why.

Generically, the film’s grist is familiar. The band battled addiction, illness, and internal strife. But the directors Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler are there to watch the band’s founder, Norwood Fisher, and its lunatic frontman, Angelo Moore, keep the band alive. By 2008, when a lot the movie was shot, Fisher and Moore are the remaining original members.

What separates the film from a run-of-the-mill imperiled band story is both Fisher and Moore’s sense of perseverance and the filmmakers’ access to their glamourless lives. Moore, for instance, moves back into his parents’ home in a middle-class Los Angeles suburb. I didn’t want to watch him vacuum his mother’s living room - in his modified punk uniform- and find it sad. But it’s useful to remember that Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers were peers, and the idea of Anthony Kiedis performing the same chores seemed surreal.

Anderson and Metzler capture Fisher and Moore’s bickering, then a rather amazing conversation they have on the subject of whose band Fishbone is. That’s precisely the sort of loaded but healthy dialogue that probably allows them to still have a band at all. But Moore’s outsized charisma (he makes a force-of-nature like Kiedis seem like a zombie) was a sticking point for the other members. So were his drinking and drama and dramatic persona, “Dr. Madd Vibe.’’ The band’s undoing appears to be its own - and, really, that’s far more interesting than a more speculative film would have been.

As much as Fishbone was unlike other bands, it was also susceptible to music-world cliches. But Anderson and Metzler don’t frame the travails as banalities. What’s estranged everyone feels more psychologically fraught than that. Fisher remains in Fishbone because the idea of Moore’s having it to himself is too much. But, then, who is Moore without the bad? The movie includes enough real insights from the band’s collaborators and its better-selling and better-off contemporaries - Flea, Perry Farrell, Ice-T - to understand how Fishbone represented a shift in music-business priorities: Their trouble and the trouble within other rock bands (Alice in Chains, Nirvana, to name two) made packaged acts like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears more appealing. You also wonder whether the stress of catching up with Living Colour, who took off in 1989, and the Chili Peppers, whose career changed two years later, began to get to them. (A video as innovative as the Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away’’ and a song as resonant as “Under the Bridge’’ might have helped.) But Fishbone was probably never meant to sell millions of records.

From a rock ’n’ roll standpoint, what you understand about Fishbone is that, in some ways, they were victims of their humanity. But in following the band to venues with audiences a fraction of the size they once were, the movie discovers a band that, after all these years, might finally be comfortable being itself.