Review: The Band

Growing Up is Hard To Do

From the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, 6/12/98
by Diane Arieff Zaga

"This is the story of the year I spent with the Decatur High marching band."

So explains filmmaker/ narrator David Zeiger at the opening of his wry, wise and touching film, "The Band." The latest documentary to air on PBS's acclaimed "POV" series (Sunday, June 21, on KCET at midnight), "The Band" is fresh, candid and bracingly free of manipulation or false sentiment. Zeiger has succeeded in making something that is at once both a highly personal exploration and a nuanced, broad-canvas portrait of what it's like to grow up today in an average American place.

His inspiration and entry point into Decatur's teen-age subculture was his son, Danny, a handsome, lanky 16-year-old who was a junior and band member at the time his father began filming. "I went to a football game at Decatur High...I looked over and was shocked to see Danny dancing, something I'd never seen him do before. Suddenly, it hit me immediately that I wanted to make a film about him," Zeiger has said about his decision to make the documentary.

If the subject matter sounds predictable, or even precious, it isn't. Zeiger is a keen-eyed and thoughtful filmmaker, as well as a fortysomething man with his own bittersweet feelings about the passage of time. He bypasses MTV stereotypes to allow these kids to unfold as complex people who are living through a seminal time of their lives.

Zeiger and Danny's mother divorced when Danny was a small child. Danny's brother, Michael, was 9 when he suffered a massive stroke at day camp, fell into a coma, and died -- the indirect result of an accident he had suffered a year before and from which his parents had thought he had recovered. Just 7 at the time, Danny turned inward to protect himself emotionally. Zeiger became a weekend and holiday father, yearning to know his surviving son better.

Zeiger shares his own family's particular back story in voice-over. Michael's absence haunts this film, but it bursts with exuberant life and humor, too: Friday-night football games, noisy with innocent glamour; an emotional loss in the playoffs; giggly preparations for prom; and, finally, senior graduation. Zeiger captures the world in which these kids live. The adults are peripheral, but occasionally vivid. The team announcer is a continuing source of humor ("Happy Birthday to Coach Jones, and congratulations on your senior citizen's discount!").

While watching this bittersweet film, one can't help but think of one's own adolescence. "It's a time when we all feel that what we are discovering is the first time it's being discovered," Zeiger told The Journal in a recent interview. "You know, you read Camus, and you're the first person to have ever read it. It's a great feeling, something that as an adult gets worn away."

In his bemused, thoughtful narration, Zeiger reconsiders his own high school years through the filter of his son's. (A native of Los Angeles, he graduated from Fairfax High School in 1967.) As football season heats up, he contrasts it with the zeitgeist that prevailed at his own alma mater: "My high school was mainly Jewish, so we didn't have a football team...but we had a great debate team." At prom time, Zeiger seems amused at the difference between his son's tuxedo-clad classmates and the hippie-esque circles he traveled in as a teen-ager in the '60s: "We were too hip to go to the prom," he said, "so we got stoned and went to the beach to watch the sunrise...but we forgot that the sun rises in the east, and so we sat there until 9 a.m. before we realized it was coming up behind us -- and we were the smart kids."

But, ultimately, at the heart of this film are Danny and his friends. Zeiger is there at their beer parties, their band practices, their kitchen tables, capturing the disarming way they morph back and forth between goofy kids and savvy, clear-eyed adults. These kids are aware of their parents' foibles and are well-traveled in the postmodern landscape of divorce, racism, and a prescription-drug culture. Erin, a determined high achiever, tells him how she waits up at night for her alcoholic mother to come home. A slight blonde named Mary Ellen speaks frankly about her struggle with anorexia, even as Danny struggles with the fact that he has fallen in love with her. There are lesser confidences, too. At one point, Zeiger enters one girl's fantastically messy bedroom -- a true teen-aged heart of darkness. "You actually live in here?" the filmmaker asks her. "Yep," she says, picking her way over blurry heaps on the floor, then stooping to pick up a pair of pants. "Oh look, here's my band uniform."

From the whimsical set-up of following the ups and downs of a high school marching band, Zeiger has built something multilayered, important and deeply touching: a meditation on parenthood, adolescence, love, loss and the passage of time. What's more, at a time when American teen-agers are portrayed in everything from rock music videos to conservative editorials as dead-eyed, nihilistic children of darkness, "The Band" deftly reminds us of the complexity, courage and joy of growing up. Don't miss it.