Better Than Something Captures Garage Rocker Jay Reatard's Brief, Troubled Life
from Better than Something Jay Reatard in Memphis
Opening in a burst of feedback, Better Than Something -- screening tonight at the Roxie -- offers a 90-minute portrait of the late Memphis punk musician Jay Reatard (1980-2010). Filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz make extensive use of video archives of Reatard performances going back to his debut at the age of 15. Flamboyant and known for his temper, Reatard is filmed thrashing about on stage, physically bumping an errant bassist, and bragging about the time he bit the head off a pigeon's head in mid-concert ("Dark, grotesque and useless. And kind of funny," he says). Covered in blood for one album cover, he looks like a pudgy Jesse Eisenberg.
But with his blunt features and long curly hair, Reatard carried himself like the philosopher king of Memphis. The filmmakers' primary asset is their lengthy interviews with the musician, filmed in the spring of 2009, less than a year before his death. Sitting on his back porch in Memphis, consuming cheese-laden meals in a diner, or driving around to visit old haunts, Reatard registers as both thoughtful and tired, middle aged at 29 and looking for some rest.
Along the way, Hammond and Mankiewicz show us a good deal of Memphis, a rundown but homey village, haunted by the ghost of a rock deity (Elvis) Reatard grew up indifferent to. The filmmakers wait until their film's last half hour before showing us the artist's elderly parents, two rock-solid southerners who had pretty much given him his head, allowing him to basically stop going to school by his mid-teens. If any trauma motivated him we don't learn of it; rather, we learn of his early music education from garage sale purchases of old rock albums and a stereo player.
From, in his own words, "smoking crack out of an apple core," or living next to a meth lab, something makes the budding musician very angry. "Can someone give Jay a hug?" asks a female musician as the star storms off the stage in mid-performance. Nonetheless Reatard enjoyed the benefits of an evidently thriving music scene, together with an outstanding work ethic that led him to record dozens of records on vinyl. His growing reputation kept him on the road, in both the U.S. and Europe, but also kept him underground as he always blew off feelers from the bigger labels.
Late in the film a friend remembers how glad he was to have avoided the "27 club," the list of musicians who have died at that age (most recently Amy Winehouse). What he does, he says, is "not about being comfortable with the world." And, also, "I'm racing against time constantly." But the film doesn't delve into its subject's death. Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. died in his sleep in January 2010 at the age of 29.