(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
Is anything more 90s than a movie where Tara Jane O’Neil plays the sister of Ian Svenonius (Make-Up, The Nation of Ulysses), steals his van and equipment, goes on tour with her friends and learns how to be in a functioning indie rock band? Bear in mind, this movie features a Matador-released soundtrack that features the likes of Unwound, Slant 6, Versus, Smog, Kicking Giant, Codeine, Polvo, the list goes on. As you might guess, it’s not a big movie. It’s not a blockbuster. It’s Half-Cocked.
Released in 1994, Half-Cocked is a funny and sweet little black-and-white feature about wanting to escape your dead-end town. It’s an ode to rock n’ roll, a means with which you can find freedom, explore the world and even express yourself. Appropriately enough, it’s filled with professional musicians and Louisville, KY scenesters — meaning, non-professional actors. Tara Jane O’Neil (credited as “Rhonda” in the film) and her friends are members of Rodan, a brief shooting star of an honest-to-goodness band that released one six-song LP called Rusty, on Quarterstick Records, in 1994 before imploding. Oddly enough, the movie almost plays this story out in miniature. Over a few days, the band is born, the band plays, the band breaks apart.
It goes something like this: After driving off in the stolen van, only to end up broke in Tennessee, they decide to call themselves Truckstop and play a gig that will maybe earn enough money for some gas and something better to eat than shoplifted Slim Jims. The only problem is, they don’t know how to play music. But when has that stopped people with a real desire to leave a mark? At their first show, a wall of clanging noise and feedback turns into an inspired performance piece where O’Neil throws empty bottles into a metal garbage can, with the band loudly backing her with every toss. It’s enough to get them some attention from the club owner and the band ends up earning the full door. Inspired, they begin to learn a few chords, how to hold a beat, and write a song. The rest of the movie is an honest look at what it was like for the average touring, small-label rock band in 1994. In other words, it’s a lot of hanging out, talking, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, finding a place to crash, arguing in the van, and making t-shirts with stencils and markers to sell at shows. It’s anything but glamorous, but you can feel the camaraderie and the support system that comes with being part of a community. It still feels cool.
Authenticity is oozing from this film. Thanks in part to it being loaded with real people from said community. The Grifters show up as themselves, as do members of The Rachels and Shipping News. Slint’s David Pajo appears, lurking in the background as one of the members in Svenonius’s band, hilariously called The Guilloteens. According the credits, there’s even a moment involving an unseen young man in a car by the name of James Murphy, who also served as the live music producer on the film. Now, while you can tell that most of the movie is scripted and not just an improvised lark, one of the musicians they cross paths with delivers something like a personal true-to-life monologue about the tedium of touring. The long hours on the road, the bad food, the uncertainty. This story seems to reach the members of Truckstop at a moment when they’re already starting to grate on each others nerves. Instead of throwing in the towel, they decide to keep going, keep getting better, and maybe, just maybe, play an honest to goodness kickass show — something that might sound a lot like Rodan. They’ll have their moment, even if it is just that. A moment.
So, yeah, Half-Cocked is chockablock with vintage indie rock credentials. But what’s surprising is that despite the wealth of non-actors, the movie is extremely well-made and at times genuinely funny and charming. The scene where Ian Svenonius tries to convince his bandmates that his mini trampoline gimmick is a good idea for their encore is priceless. Made by the wife-and-husband team of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, it’s a beautifully shot film, made up of well-composed, well-edited shots that give off some serious early Alexandre Rockwell, Tom DiCillo, Jim Jarmusch-type vibes. Like Larry Clark’s Kids, which came out a year later, Hawley and Galinsky made a film that feels fully embedded in a culture (it’s no wonder that the filmmakers went on to a thriving career making documentaries). And with it’s grainy, boxy-framed, B&W, low-key aesthetic, they’ve made something that perfectly suits the environment they’re in. Better yet, unlike Kids, Half-Cocked feels strangely timeless. It’s of the 90s and yet doesn’t feel dated at all.
Upon its release, it was easy to regard the film as another B&W, low-budget, Sundancean, proto-mumblecore effort — albeit one with an exceedingly killer soundtrack. Now it plays like a minor masterpiece; a lost gem that so perfectly captures a time, place and essential music scene that it should be granted certified landmark status. | s erickson