The Motor City Five, from Detroit, were a hell of a ’60s band. Musically they blew minds with their high-voltage Who/Sun Ra fusion, and politically they did their stuff with more swing and more of what we now call attitude than anybody else.
Alone among their peers, they played outside the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, taking off just before the truncheons came down. They lived in a commune, advocated cultural change through rock’n’roll, dope and fucking in the streets, constantly baited the pigs, and in solidarity with their revolutionary black brothers they formed the White Panther Party. Now, with the release of the documentary “MC5: A True Testimonial,” they finally have their day at the movies.
It’s a wild, sad film. Being in the MC5 took its toll. Two members — Rob Tyner and Fred “Sonic” Smith — are dead, and the rest seem to have arrived in late middle age disabled to varying degrees by the intensity of their young manhood. Bassist Mike Davis, interviewed on his desert ranch, is creased and crazy-eyed, with great vacancies in his speech. Drummer Dennis Thompson reeks of confinement: A ranting, unsettling presence, he sits in a small room, looms into the camera and says he dreams about his band every night. Wayne Kramer, lead guitarist, is the most impishly healthy and quick-thinking of the three survivors and almost commandeers the film. But speaking about the band’s breakup he becomes desolate. The MC5 was brought down by the usual demons — drugs, squabbles, industry indifference — but it is the height that they were brought down from that makes them exceptional. Peaking on self-belief, they felt themselves to be, in Davis’ words, “at the center of the yin-yang” — agents of change, superheroes, for whom the world would either tilt toward the positive or spin off into hell.
Director David Thomas and his wife, producer Laurel Legler, have worked on the project since 1995. They love the MC5 — no doubt about that — and as filmmakers they took an editorial stand to indulge the band and to swallow their story whole. Some wistful notes are sounded by the ex-wives, two nice, shrewd women who sit by a crackling fireplace and reminisce about sewing stage costumes for the boys — “He liked ruffles, he did like his ruffles” — but there are no non-believers onscreen. A hint of real dissent, not just intra-band bickering, might have been nice as something to waft away the odor of hippy bombast, the gaseous declarations of ex-manager John Sinclair: “We were plugged into the Universe! And we were doing what the Universe wanted us to do!”
The fact that the Black Panthers considered the MC5 to be “psychedelic clowns” gets a mention, but the closest thing to skepticism is provided by Danny Fields, the wonderful music biz insider, who dryly rhapsodizes about the band’s tight trousers and “Viking power”: “John Sinclair was taking a shit with the bathroom door open, barking orders — the whole scene was just so BUTCH.”
Detroit was a hotbed of great rock writing — Lester Bangs, for god’s sake — but “A True Testimonial” offers no critical perspective on the band or its music. Bangs, for example, famously pooh-poohed the MC5’s first album Kick Out The Jams. He wasn’t falling for the hype, he said, for the “thick overlay of teenage-revolution and total-energy-thing which conceals these scrapyard vistas of cliches and ugly noise.” Equally famously, he changed his mind when he saw the 5 live. To see, apparently, was to believe, and the live footage shows you why: A performance of “Looking At You” at an open-air festival captures the MC5 groove — psychedelically sinuous but shuddering with crude R&B power — better than anything they recorded in a studio.
Now at last we can see those legendary dance steps, Wayne Kramer sliding on toe-points, Fred Smith windmilling his guitar, Rob Tyner wobbling the dark nimbus of his Afro.
It’s really all you could ask for.