Review: The Band

The Kids Are Alright: David Zeiger's "The Band"

From Creative Loafing, Atlanta, GA, 2/14/98
by Eddy Von Mueller

Usually, describing a film as "unusual" is subtly insulting, like telling someone their new haircut is "unique." Then again, watching some stranger's home movies usually runs a close second to an afternoon of root canal.

And usually, there's nothing beautiful about a high school band butchering the classics. The Band is an unusual movie.

A film by local documentarian David Zeiger, The Band chronicles a year in the life of the Decatur High School marching band. But don't let the homespun subject deceive you: Zeiger is no novice. His first documentary, Displaced in the New South, which dealt with the plight of immigrant laborers in the Southeast, was featured on PBS and inspired a song by another local act, the Indigo Girls. But the themes of his new film are closer to home and closer to heart: His 16-year-old son, Danny, slings a sax in the titular band.

Zeiger shot more than 200 hours of footage, tagging along behind a batch of Decatur High student musicians like a groupie, from practices to parties to the prom. Part nostalgia, part ethnography, and part eulogy, the project is Zeiger's earnest attempt to understand Danny, and to explore the loss of Danny's older brother Michael, nine years earlier, to a sudden stroke. Withdrawn and isolated after the tragedy, Danny learns to dance in the band, a social and personal transformation that fascinates his father. Almost compulsively, Zeiger tries to capture this new Danny, and his world, on film. It is a Quixotic cinematic quest by turns poignant, candid, and comic, a This is Spinal Tap of the soul.

The Band is not potent because the players and the pictures are so extraordinary, but rather because they are not. Using a variety of media, including still photos and Super-8, The Band is frank and unadorned. Most of the picture was shot unstaged with a hand-held camera, giving it a vibrant, spontaneous quality. And as for the subjects, Danny and his friends are just, well, kids. Through Zeiger's lens, we see each as completely typical and utterly singular. The film is a visit to Primal High, part of a shared cultural heritage, a place so mundane that it becomes miraculously transcendent and profound.

High school, as Zeiger says in his voice-over, is a time when every day means something. As the DHS banditos goof and gossip and grapple with the new curve balls life is throwing them, it's hard not to remember when we had to swing at them ourselves. The Band absorbs you, compels you to sting along with all the greatest hits of adolescence: divorce, drugs, romance, race, Ritalin. The anxieties and the angst, the hormones and hope in The Band are all unsettlingly present. Eerily, by some sympathetic sleight of hand, I could see in these strangers on the screen my friends, my family, me. It was like flashing back to Vietnam, only with lockers.

Even the high school itself is a powerful presence. Anonymous, institutional, Decatur High is a terrain as familiar as a whiff of stale gym socks, and as ominous. The buildings intimidate us, adult trespassers on teen turf. Once one has graduated, Zeiger notes, "they belong to someone else, and you are history."

Zeiger's keen awareness of his own age and history haunts the film, an awareness that the tragedy of youth is that its most magical qualities can only be appreciated after they have been swept irretrievably away. "Who cares if you're 36 or 37?" says Zeiger. "It's whether you're in your 30s, 40s or 50s." For adults, time is measured not in days, but decades, and "the less time I have ahead of me, the more it speeds up."

The transiency of this all-too-fleeting youth is made all the more poignant by images and memories of Michael, who died before he reached high school. His is a presence made indelible by his absence. The tragedy of childhood lost is not canceled out by the quotidian triumphs of teenager-hood. Rather, they are necessary to define one another. As some of his subjects are getting ready to graduate, Zeiger the filmmaker and Zeiger the father experiences a renewal of sorts, albeit a painful one. As his project draws to an end he realizes that he is just barely getting started. Just like the kids in the band.

Those hoping for a broad and balanced examination of young people in the New South had better steer clear. This is documentary collapsing into autobiography. But it never teeters into irrelevance. Zeiger's great accomplishment is that his personal little film becomes the viewer's personal little film as well. Shedding the pretense of objectivity and authority which pervades most documentaries, The Band is unabashedly sentimental, without lapsing into sentimentality. The picture walks the tightrope between cultural stereotypes of youth. It is neither the saccharine idyll of teenagers-in-crisis seen in the night-time soaps, nor the leering caricature of teenagers-in-hell peddled in alarmist tracts like Kids. A self-proclaimed '60s Dad, Zeiger stalks and studies the After-Xers in their native habitat, and finds everything wrong with them you might expect, but concludes that's nothing new, and maybe nothing to worry about. His search for his son is finally a celebration of what his son represents, a warm, awkward, embarrassing embrace of the perpetually self-destructing Younger Generation.