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Color Me Obsessed: a Documentary on the Replacements by Gordon Bechard

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When it comes to The Replacements, there are two types of people—those who’ve never heard of them, and those who are unwavering in their conviction that they are the best American rock band in history. Filmmaker Gorman Bechard's documentary on the band, Color Me Obsessed, recently had its Michigan premiere.

by Cole Waterman

When it comes to The Replacements, there are two types of people — those who’ve never heard of them, and those who are unwavering in their conviction that they are the best American rock band in history. A tad hyperbolic, but what is undeniable is that the Minneapolis band is the missing link connecting the Rolling Stones, Big Star, The Ramones, Nirvana and every hip indie band of the last 20 years.

The Replacements — singer/rhythm guitarist/principal songwriter Paul Westerberg, lead guitarist Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars — formed in the underground punk scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Their time together was defined by dichotomies — their gigs alternately involving them drunkenly falling off stage or putting on performances that made jaded rock fans see God; their albums ramshackle yet melodic, snotty and rebellious yet genuine and insightful. Westerberg’s signature caustic wit and clever wordplay put him second only to Bob Dylan in Minnesota-born songwriters (sorry Prince; you can have the third spot), equally at home addressing social or personal issues as playing up prurient subject matter such as inopportune erections and tonsil removal. At a time when hard rock and metal simply did not mesh with punk, the Replacements wore their disparate influences on their sleeves without irony or shame, placing a cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” smack dab in the middle of their most celebrated album, aping the riff of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” in “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and playing live renditions of country and R&B songs.

Speaking of their influences, their closest peers, culturally though not musically speaking, might be the Velvet Underground of the late 1960s. It’s been said, to the point of cliché, that not a lot of people bought the VU’s albums, but everyone who did started a band. The same could be said of The Replacements, affectionately known as The ‘Mats to their devoted fan base. Two decades since they disbanded, the seminal band is as relevant as ever, still cultivating a devoted following.

Calling their fans devoted is a bit of an understatement, as they’re akin to a smaller-scale, more intimate version of Deadheads, sans the tie dyes and patchouli dependence. “Obsessive” is more apt, as is the contention of filmmaker Gorman Bechard, whose documentary on the band, Color Me Obsessed, had its Michigan premiere in the Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival, September 29, 2011 in Bay City. The film’s title is a play on the song “Color Me Impressed” from the band’s 1983 album Hootenanny. Breaking from the standard rock-doc form, the film features no interviews with band members, archive footage or music. Instead, it is composed of nearly 150 interviews of their fans and peers describing how the band affected their lives. As such, it both piques the curiosity of the uninitiated and serves as a fitting tribute to those who sang the praises of their unheralded heroes over the decades, containing a few factoids even longtime fans may not have known (i.e. Why is their nickname the ‘Mats? How could they have the audacity to use the title of the final Beatles album for one of their own? Who is “Tim,” the namesake of their fourth LP?).

Bechard, 52, called from his hometown of New Haven, Conn., to discuss the film.

CW: How and when did you discover the Replacements? GB: The first time I ever saw them, I went to see R.E.M. in New Haven in 1983 and they were the opening band. I was right up against the stage with my girlfriend. Honestly, they were the worst band I’d ever seen. They were so bad I did something I’d never done before. I turned my back on the band even though we were front and center and stared at the audience. Six months later, I heard this song, “I Will Dare,” and this album comes out, Let It Be. I thought, “Who is this? This can’t be the same band I saw.” They went from being a band I detested to my favorite band.

CW: What was it about them that appealed to you? GB: When Let It Be came out, we were so used to bands putting out albums with the same song over and over again. The Ramones were great, but they wrote one song and kept doing it. Let It Be is seven or eight bands. They were all over the place. Every part of it was great. I think it’s one of the best produced albums I’ve ever heard. It has this perfect mix where it sounds live, but it’s still sharp enough. The guitars are just wonderful. If every album could sound like Let It Be, rock ‘n’ roll would be in a much better place.

CW: So is Let It Be your favorite Replacements album? GB: It’s everything you could possibly want in a rock band. It has every emotion, every speed. It’s not my favorite Replacements album, but I know it’s their best album. Tim is my favorite, just because the songs are more fun to listen to.

CW: How did the idea come about to make a film about them? GB: The movie sort of fell into my lap. Another girl was making a film on the Replacements and I was in it. They were fictional characters in my first novel. A couple years pass and she calls and says she can’t finish the film, why don’t I take over. I ended up starting from scratch. I don’t like VH1 documentaries, which all rock-docs seem to be, especially of a band that’s deceased. I didn’t want to do that. I was literally lying in bed, thinking, “The Replacements are God to me.” I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the Replacements. I thought, “We never see or hear God. Can I pull off a music documentary where there’s no music and we never see the band?” I sort of became obsessed with that.

CW: You had no intention of ever using their music then? GB: I never asked for rights (to the music). It never even crossed my mind. Here you have a band where their first video they shot a stereo speaker. I like taking risks. It keeps it interesting. Basically, I’m gonna fall on my face or fly, sort of like what the Replacements did. It was definitely a Replacements way to make a film. There are two thoughts here — if you know the band’s music, you don’t need the music in the film. If you don’t know the music, I’ve sort of given you the ammunition to go discover the band on your own as we did. I’m not playing my favorite songs; you can find your own favorites, which I think is a much better way to do it. As soon as I did my first interview ... I knew the movie would work. The people in the movie are so passionate, you don’t even realize the music’s not there.

CW: How long did it take to conduct the interviews and edit the material into a cohesive film? GB: I started interviewing in November 2009 and pretty much interviewed straight through until November 2010. I started editing with Sarah (Hajtol), who is my assistant, in July 2010. We had a close to final cut by end of the year. I did the sound mixing in February.

CW: When did the film premiere? GB: It premiered in late March in Tampa at a festival.

CW: If you were to recommend one song or album to a newbie, what would they be? GB: Just start with Let It Be. If there’s not a song on Let It Be that doesn’t somehow hook you, you don’t have a pulse.

CW: What would the musical landscape be like today without the Replacements’ influence? GB: If you take the Replacements and (sister Minneapolis punk band) Hüsker Dü out of the mix, we’d be listening to Human League. That would’ve been rock ‘n’ roll. They saved rock ‘n’ roll and changed rock ‘n’ roll. Without them, there would be no Seattle, there would be no North Carolina. There’s not a band that picked up a guitar in the last 22 years that doesn’t owe something to the Replacements. They might not even know it. They might say, “I listen to Nirvana.” Well, there is no Nirvana without the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. This is where it came from.

CW: What artists today are carrying on the ‘Mats’ legacy? GB: My favorite bands to come out of the Replacements’ legacy are the Chapel Hill (N.C.) bands. Archers of Loaf are the greatest band to follow the Replacements. If the Replacements are the best band of the ‘80s, Archers of Loaf are the best band of the ‘90s. They captured their style, power, songwriting and guitar playing.

Had they been more careerist, they could have been what Nirvana ended up becoming just as they dissolved. Instead, they seemed to sabotage themselves every time the prospect of breaking into the mainstream arose. A music video they submitted to MTV featured nothing more than footage of a home stereo playing “Bastards of Young.” An appearance on Saturday Night Live ended with their unhinged performance and backstage antics getting them banned from the program.

But all talk of their attitude and charisma aside, it is their music that leads to the Replacements consistently being discovered by successive generations of disaffected youths. “Unsatisfied” is the decade of excess’s sequel to the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” while “Bastards of Young” is an anthem of taking cultural alienation and wearing it as a badge of honor as rousing as the Who’s “My Generation.” Their dry humor is evident on the aforementioned “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Waitress in the Sky,” the latter supposedly a biting put-down of Westerberg’s sister’s career as a flight attendant.

On the more sensitive side are “Here Comes a Regular,” a mournful paean to barroom camaraderie as world-weary as any Tom Waits ballad, and the desperate “Answering Machine,” evoking all the pathos of a Robert Johnson blues number in its unraveling frustration and loneliness. Such a penchant for sad understanding was present even from the outset; the down tempo, prophetic “Johnny’s Gonna Die” — a pre-death elegy for Johnny Thunders — kicks off side two of their first album, an otherwise straight-forward punk record.

“The Ledge,” the band’s most controversial song, is an unflinching portrayal of suicide that is neither affirming nor condemning. Westerberg’s account is simply honest and harrowing as his bandmates mount an anxious rhythm that can’t help but sprout goosebumps on the listener’s flesh.

On the flipside is “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a rollicking rave-up that finds the band at their most jubilant. It is a song that sounds best blaring out an open car window as you speed to a long-anticipated late night gathering of old friends and debauchery.

And therein lies the secret of their appeal — the balance they struck between furious disillusionment and brash revelry, tackling it all with a self-deprecating sense of humor that never slipped into despair.

In an age when mainstream rock was as benign, manufactured, and predictable as possible, the ‘Mats were authentic in their excitement. Would they make it through the show without imploding or erupt into a fist fight? Would they decide not to play any of their own songs and instead do impromptu covers of songs they hardly knew? Would their next song be a discordant frenzy making you regret leaving your earplugs at home, or would it move you to tears and compel you to reevaluate where your life was heading?

In short, they were a band that made music for themselves and if others liked it, well, good for them. And for those privy to the Replacements’ subtle musical revolution, spreading their gospel was akin to passing along a gem too important to keep secret. Such is the goal aimed for and achieved by Color Me Obsessed.

When not attempting to break into the world of fiction and music writing, Cole Waterman covers crime as a reporter for The Bay City Times, where a version of this interview appeared.

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