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Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

2011
Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Lev Anderson & Chris Metzler
Directed by Lev Anderson & Chris Metzler
DVD, color, 108 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Music, Punk Rock, Race Studies, Popular Music, Alternative Music


Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Recommended with reservations   
 
Date Entered: 2/15/2012

Fishbone is a band that defies any easy description or categorization – even the term “popular music” only loosely applies. This eclecticism is one of the hallmarks of Fishbone as they encompass, and handily execute, several genres of music: punk, ska, funk, reggae, progressive rock, swing, heavy metal, new wave, and avant garde jazz. Known for explosive and energetic performances, the six-piece band’s distinctiveness extends to its line-up featuring four lead vocalists and multiple horns over a standard rock rhythm section. As Fishbone’s career progressed, their eccentricity devolved into a lack of focus causing the band to crumble under the weight of its own excesses, artistically and personally. Everyday Sunshine effectively presents that crumbling and reminds fans of what could have been, while informing the uninitiated about what was once a highly promising band that just missed on fully realizing creative and commercial potential.

Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler, the creators of Everyday Sunshine, assemble their documentary through interviews with the band, its peers, and their family members, in combination with behind-the-scenes footage, music videos intended for MTV, performance clips, and animated segments serving as visual content during contextual narrations. (The Fat Albert-style animation used to represent the band’s teen years is particularly poignant). Laurence Fishburne narrates, and though he possesses a recognizably rich voice, he comes across stiff and uninspired.

The overall perspective of Everyday Sunshine is certainly that of an adoring fan. It is presumed that the band’s music is superior and praiseworthy. The limited criticism is aimed at singular band member’s attempts to introduce new sounds; questionable directions that select band members took in their personal lives; and the reasons why four original members systemically left Fishbone. John Norwood Fisher (bassist) Angelo Moore (vocalist/saxophonist) - the remaining two original members - provide the bulk of the commentary. As such, the film is more celebratory of Fishbone, without offering any clear reasons to root for the band as it limps forward with Fisher and Moore. Indeed, Everyday Sunshine does not address any due criticisms regarding sexist or juvenile lyrics; the band’s eventual lack of creative focus; or how they quickly became a relic of the 1980s during the overly earnest and hyper-politically correct 1990s.

The documentary can be bewildering at times, especially as the chronological narrative is inconsistently applied to both the band members’ lives and the collective band history. Footage clips from various eras in the band’s career are interspersed illogically, and as most of the members routinely altered their appearances (most notably in hairstyle or girth), this juxtaposition of source material disjoints. There are also several curious omissions in the film. Multiple releases are not referenced at all, or titles are never given, though the creative processes or surrounding events are discussed. This includes the band’s first full-length album, In Your Face (Columbia Records, 1986), and most recordings released after 1991. The drummer, Phillip “Fish” Fisher, is not interviewed at all for this film, despite his brother Norwood’s regular contributions. Furthermore, there is no mention of John Bigham (a former sideman/composer for Miles Davis), who was with Fishbone for over eight years, appearing on three recordings and in numerous videos. It is also notable that the documentary proper does not include any extended performance footage (viewers must visit the robust bonus features). For those new to Fishbone, depending on the film alone, they may find that they do not fully comprehend what the band actually sounds like based on the more chaotic live renditions or clipped studio recordings offered here.

Anderson and Metzler make effective use of historic events that surrounded and informed the lives of the band members in South Central Los Angeles. With the exception of Angelo Moore (raised in the suburbs), the other members knew firsthand the chaos of multiple riots and how oppressive political policies affected the lives of poor African American families, while witnessing the constant presence of drugs and gang violence. The mother of the Fisher brothers – identified simply as Mama Fish – states her happiness to have the band rehearsing in her home daily: “I knew where my sons were.” Throughout, family members are quite candid, particularly Moore’s mother. Their relationship is examined closely as it pertains to his manic personality and reactive aesthetic tendencies, and the financial challenges Moore faces as a grown man in his forties. In addition, the filmmakers also delve deeply into the personal life of Kendall Jones (guitarist), and the controversial events accompanying his departure and estrangement from the band. The erratic choices of Jones, and also Moore, are presented as being strongly influenced as reactions against religious extremism in their family lives and upbringings. These familial dynamics render Fishbone’s earlier brotherhood all the more powerful, and its resultant dissolution equally sympathetic.

Though influential, Fishbone is not highly representative of any particular genre or music scene, and therefore this documentary is perhaps too specialized to serve general popular music studies. We Jam Econo – The Story of The Minutemen (Rocket Fuel Films, 2005) provides more coherent commentary on what it meant to be an eclectic and virtuosic band in the early years of the Los Angeles punk scene. However, the racial context found in Everyday Sunshine is relatively uncommon. If viewers are interested in learning more about Fishbone, their earlier retrospectives The Reality of My Surroundings: Past and Present (Sony, 1991) or Critical Times – Fishbone’s Hen House Sessions (Mvd Visual, 2004) help to complete the story of a complicated band with an equally complicated history. Otherwise, for serious study of the band, Fishbone’s discography is the best place to start.