Distributed by Microcinema International/Microcinema DVD, 2169 Folsom Street, Suite M101, San Francisco, CA 94110; 415-447-9750
Produced by Richard Matson and Albert Lai
Directed by Richard Matson
DVD, color, 104 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Music, Indie Rock, Punk Rock, Popular Music
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 6/13/2011
The small southern city of Little Rock, Arkansas, and its surrounding metro area (population of nearly 700,000 per the 2010 U.S. Census) is more of a place located in between destinations than a destination itself. The city boasts no top-tier institution of higher education. There are no major league sports teams. It is, however, the capitol of Arkansas, a state known primarily for the Ozark Mountains, the former home of President Bill Clinton, and the official home for Wal-Mart. As such, it follows that Little Rock’s underground music scene is largely off the map for most rock music listeners and scholars. Richard Matson’s documentary, Towncraft, seeks to change that omission. Filmmaker Richard Matson is an expatriate of the Little Rock punk rock scene now living in Brooklyn, New York, and is president of the film distribution company that bears his name. Towncraft is the first feature-length film that he has directed, though Matson has served as producer for other feature films and documentaries. Accompanying his documentary are a 56-page book and a two-compact disc set containing twenty songs, many of which are featured in the film.
The punk community in Little Rock developed in the mid-1980s after similar scenes had grown in the metro areas of New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other large cities scattered around the United States. One major difference between the Little Rock scene and its more populous contemporaries was the boredom experienced and expressed by the former youths interviewed for this film. Simply put, there was not much to do in Little Rock during the 1980s for young people who neither played sports nor were involved in extracurricular activities at school. The DIY ethics of punk rock offered an outlet for the undirected energies of these teenagers existing outside of conventional social expectations. Early Little Rock bands like Econochrist, Trusty, Chino Horde, and Numbskulz provided a model for other kids interested in starting bands and looking to make music on their own terms. Before long, a full-fledged and self-sustaining scene formed and participants were expected to serve a function: performer, promoter, recordings distributor, zine author, or producing merchandise. This community found performance spaces wherever they could – the most remarkable being unmonitored public parks with electricity.
Another difference between Little Rock’s scene and others was the sense of isolation the artists felt. This is mentioned throughout the documentary, and seems a driving force behind the participants starting their own record labels, distribution practices, and building a network of community support. This community support included a shared van for touring bands and hosting several benefit shows to produce a recording documenting the Little Rock scene. The resultant LP, also titled Towncraft, was released in 1992 on the local File 13 Records and contained ten songs by bands active at that time. Reaching this point in the scene’s history comprises much of the documentary. Thus, it is relevant to note that Matson departed Little Rock for the northeast soon after in 1994, though it appears that his connection to the community was not severed.
During the following few years, the scene evolved as people moved away for college or to seek better opportunities for their bands in other cities. (Ironically, this type of emigration had begun earlier with Econochrist and Trusty, but the vast majority of the Little Rock artists did not follow their lead). The music up until 1993 was more straight ahead punk rock and largely influenced insularly by local peers. As the 1990s progressed, the musicians began to pursue new projects, experiment with other sounds and approaches, and rapidly expand the genres of music represented in the Little Rock scene.
The greatest strength of Towncraft comes from the interviews by the community’s members, which is complemented by commentary from reporters in the local media who observed the developments of the community from the outside. Many of those interviewed for the film have yet to leave Little Rock (or left and since returned) and are still actively creating music. The film also relies heavily on primary source material including show flyers, photographs, news-clippings, video footage, and record covers that provide visual context.
It is especially helpful that the interviewees are identified each time they appear on screen. The band that they were in is also identified and updated throughout to reflect the point of history in discussion. This not only reveals the tightness of the community, but it shows how the scene develops through band personnel. (Indeed, some sort of family tree would prove helpful to understanding all the relationships in this community).
Ian MacKaye (known internationally for his work with Washington D.C’s Dischord Records, and the bands The Evens, Fugazi, Minor Threat, and others) makes significant contributions to the discussion of self-sustaining punk rock communities. His original connection to Towncraft was through the band Trusty, who left Little Rock for Washington in the early 1990s and eventually released a recording on Dischord. Throughout the rest of the film, MacKaye provides additional commentary that is relevant to the topic, though now detached from the original intention for his inclusion.
At 104 minutes, the film becomes a bit redundant at times. Halfway through Towncraft, the interviews begin to focus on the same few people, with many repeating opinions or sharing similar anecdotes. While this demonstrates the cohesiveness of the community’s shared objectives, it can make for weary viewing. Furthermore, there is a surprising lack of performance footage accompanied by corresponding live audio. The performance documentation on hand does reveal the energy of the artists, the enthusiasm of the audiences, the demographics of the community, and the unconventional spaces where shows were held that resulted in a lack of barriers between attendee and performer.
The accompanying compact disc does not include any of the songs that appeared on the original Towncraft compilation LP. It is also curious that half of the bands featured on that LP are not included on these recordings or mentioned in the documentary. The two CD-set makes for a very supportive soundtrack for the film and provides clear evidence of how the community evolved and matured musically. However, it appears to offer the earliest works by some of the artists, years before they hit their creative peak (this is certainly the case for Trusty). The first disc covers the years 1986 – 1996, during which the scene is primarily creating punk rock, largely sung by males. Later on that disc, the songs reflect genres associated with the indie rock then becoming popular elsewhere in the United States (especially alt-country, pop-punk, twee, and post rock). The second disc also spans ten years (1997 – 2007), but is far more diverse running the entire gamut of punk rock and indie rock styles, and includes more female contributions.
The book provides strong visual and textual information in support of the film, primarily as a series of essays by current and former members of the community. Much like the documentary, the essays (aside from one) are largely uncritical of the Little Rock scene and are frequently wistful. The quality of writing understandably oscillates from author-to-author, while the sentiment found in their reminiscences is fairly consistent. Despite the glossy production of the book, the layout resembles a punk rock fanzine and includes authentic design elements.
Towncraft is a highly affectionate examination of a self-sustaining community of artists seeking to create music entirely on their own terms. Aside from some redundancies in the film, the thorough exploration of the community’s history can serve as a model for establishing a DIY scene in small towns and cities “in the middle of nowhere” (a common refrain in Towncraft). Other documentaries on punk rock will help in appreciating the larger history surrounding this topic, including Another State of Mind (Time Bomb, 1984) or Punk’s Not Dead (Vision Films, 2006).