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Doc captures a short and furious life

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Jay Reatard was the stage name of Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., a garage band rocker from Memphis who was famous for his onstage anger and his prolific output.

He named himself "Reatard" because he thought it was funny -- "I take myself very seriously, hence my name," he told one interviewer -- and he was constantly showing up in new bands: Reatards, Lost Sounds, Angry Angels, Terror Visions, Destruction Unit, Nervous Patterns, The Final Solutions, Bad Times. He didn't always play well with others.

Reatard -- oh, let's just call him Jay -- died suddenly at the age of 29, but just before that, two documentary filmmakers set out to do a short movie about him. After his death, that was expanded into Better Than Something: Jay Reatard, a feature-length look at a difficult, complicated and (to me, anyway) obscure young musician who seemed to know he wasn't long for this world.

"I'm racing against time constantly," he tells the filmmakers, Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, near the end of Better Than Something. "I just make music because I'm afraid of everything else."

The movie includes interviews with Jay and many of his friends, enemies and colleagues -- often they were the same person -- as well as family members. There are several concert scenes from 2009, when the movie was shot, and earlier tours. The result is a montage of furious three-chord bellowing, a purposeful dismissal of slick show business ("like everything else in life, it's ugly that you like") and some surprisingly genial and thoughtful reflections from a young man who turned a hard life into hard art.

Jay -- who resembles a younger, hairier Val Kilmer -- was born in strained circumstances in Memphis, a town he describes as a "s hole" -- although he wouldn't live anywhere else. ("Somewhere safe?" he muses. "I'd fall asleep.") He seems to have been alone much of the time and he tells a harrowing story of looking after his baby sister the night a woman was being raped in the other half of his semi-detached bungalow. A drug gang rescued her and when the police arrived, they beat up the rapists and allowed neighbourhood children to pelt them with rocks. Jay turned it into a song called 1620 Echles St.

He released his first album as a teenager, something called F- Elvis, Here's the Reatards. (He had a complicated view of the Memphis icon. He liked him more as an idea.) He never stopped making music, even during concerts; he said he hated stopping between songs, especially if the audience was going to applaud, an instinct he likened to applauding a good scene in the middle of a movie. He might stalk offstage in anger, or spit at the crowd or, on one memorable night, bite the head off a live pigeon and throw the carcass into the audience. It landed in the cleavage of a woman at the back of the hall. "Pretty gnarly, man," he summarizes.

Jay speaks candidly of some of his demons -- like the time he started taking crack because he wanted to drop an "atom bomb" on his life and start over -- and rather charmingly of his obsessions. "I'm a jackoff of all trades," he says. "I'd rather be half-assed at 100 things than be a virtuoso at one." That's because he'd be bored doing the same thing all the time.

By the end of Better Than Something, Jay Reatard is only beginning to take shape as a person, although fans -- who have the biography of his music to fill in the spaces -- may find the explanations they seek.

Or it may be that he was just too restless to pin down and too consumed with fleeing understanding. "I'm not Joan Baez here, dude," he says at one stage. "What I'm about is not being comfortable with the world."

-- Postmedia News

Other voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of Better Than Something: Jay Reatard.

[The directors] cede narrative structure to their interview subjects, which may fulfill some goal of objectivity but cheats the viewer of depth or a clear point of view.

-- Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times

Like the longhair with the foghorn falsetto it's titled after, this unfussy rock-doc profile is shaggy, sophisticated, and more than a little sad.

-- Mark Holcomb, Village Voice

An intimate if drive-by quasi-portrait of the artist in mostly his own self-deprecating, wryly humorous and sometimes painfully revealing words...

-- John Beifuss, Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)

It's evident that he would have evolved as a musician and a man, and this tight and candid film makes you regret that he no longer can.

-- Shawn Levy, Oregonian

A fascinating and bittersweet documentary about an iconic garage-rock musician who died at the peak of his creative output.

-- Jeff Albertson, Seattle Times

Better Than Something doesn't really try to resolve the mystery of how someone could be simultaneously so productive and destructive.

-- Noel Murray, AV Club

Intimacy doesn't completely give rise to insight in this loving, if largely for-fans-only, posthumous portrait of Memphis-bred punk rocker Jay Reatard.

-- Nick Schager, Slant magazine

Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie review

Better Than Something: Jay Reatard

Starring Jay Reatard, Alicja Trout, King Louie Bankston

Cinematheque

Subject to Classification

89 minutes

Three and a half stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2012 D5

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