Review: The Band

Documentary Has Heart, Insight Into Teens

From the Dallas Morning News, 6/16/98
by Manuel Mendoza

Filming your son's high-school marching band for a year and then foisting the results on the public -- we're talking about potential home-movie hell here.

Yet David Zeiger gets almost everything right in his 60-minute mini-epic, The Band. Tailing the band is an excuse to get to know his son, Danny, better, and to make peace with the death 12 years ago of Danny's older brother, Michael.

Mr. Zeiger knows what he's doing, so the film -- airing Tuesday night as part of PBS' highly recommended P.O.V. documentary series -- goes beyondthe father-son relationship.

The 48-year-old photographer and filmmaker, who is divorced from Danny's mother, treats Danny and his friends with respect. In return, they give him almost full access to their lives and their thoughts. Then he takes that raw material and shapes it into a varied portrait of what it's like to be a teenager today - but with almost none of the sociological stereotyping or sentimentality that's common to the subject.

The Band is humorous and lighthearted, even as it deals with such heavy issues as anorexia, racism and lost teen love. Whatever the kids say about their not-so-attentive parents, their missed love connections or their college financial-aid woes, they know how to have fun.

Mr. Zeiger spends much of The Band watching them celebrate that moment when they're still less mature but often much wiser than their elders. In his occasional first-person voice-overs, he admits that this is a nostalgia trip for him, and he compares his time and his relationship with his father to theirs. It seems the more things change...

The kids are so casually honest, so downright smart, that one has to question all the alarm surrounding the state of teenage-dom. This is not to say that Mr. Zeiger glosses over the real societal/human problems they face. One girl talks about having to take care of her drunken mother; others have economic and social troubles, including learning disabilities and run-ins with the police. But what keeps coming through is their exuberance and their optimism.

The setting is Decatur High School in suburban Atlanta, and Mr. Zeiger starts out by establishing how all-American-normal the town is. "Good evening and welcome to the oldest lighted field in continuous use in the United States," the press box announcer says at the beginning of the weekly school football game. Even as their team gets trounced, band members and the crowd whoop it up.

Mr. Zeiger then sets up his main themes, at first waxing philosophical about the way time flies as you get older. Soon he's talking about how Danny, who was 7 at the time, never allowed himself to feel the pain of his brother's death.

"I kinda turned away from him," Danny says.

Images of Michael, who was hit by a car at age 9 and later died after a stroke, keep looping back throughout the film. At one point, Mr. Zeiger says that when people ask him how many children he has, he still doesn't know how to answer. This is a hard truth, an example of how The Band avoids cheap sentiment.

Mr. Zeiger worries that he doesn't belong back at school, and at the beginning, the students aren't too thrilled to have him around. "Oh, he wants it to be like Kids," a girl says, referring to Larry Clark's dark 1995 film about a roaming band of funny but violent New York teens.

The cast of characters in The Band is nowhere near as threatening, and probably more typical. But just as interesting, too. The street-wise Burt, for instance, constantly swears and has been arrested several times for drinking and using drugs. He believes there is more than one type of law, and he follows only the higher, spiritual kind. His friend, Erin, the senior class president with the mother who drinks, gets into college - but the bloom comes off when she starts trying to figure out how she's going to pay for it.

Mr. Zeiger describes the kids mostly in pairs: Danny, a 16-year-old junior, and Mary Ellen, a senior, who talks as frankly about her anorexia as Danny does about loving her; Chris and Eric, one a white suburban class clown who was scared when he first saw blacks together in a group, the other a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks who dreams of being drum major; Greg and Amber, the couple who seem to have all the answers but don't; Kate and Cameron, both of whom have taken Ritalin for attention-deficit disorders. They deliver an analysis of the prescription-drug culture that should be broadcast across suburban America.

The sexual aspects of high school also are dealt with openly, but without turning The Band into an Afterschool Special. Mr. Zeiger shows the teens hugging, kissing and rubbing each other's backs, and they feel comfortable enough with him to talk about the way, for example, junior boys exploit the naivete of freshman girls. He also knows when to butt out, and the film never violates their privacy.

The Band is not flawless. Mr. Zeiger is obviously sincere in his concern about race relations, and a short scene with Eric's mother wishing she could afford to own a house is moving. But we never get to really know Eric, so the race/class angle seems forced.

There's nothing dazzling about the cinematography, yet Mr. Zeiger does little things to make the pictures more lively. He hangs out with the kids in a wide array of settings in and out of school: the band room, the football field, their cars and homes. This not only provides visual variety, but also helps establish how deeply he penetrated the teen culture.

Mr. Zeiger, whose first feature-length documentary chronicled the lives of immigrants in and around Atlanta, also edits deftly. One long sequence cuts between two settings: one of Danny wrapping a present while slowly telling his father how Mary Ellen's not in love with him, and the other of Mary Ellen telling her side of the story.

The drama builds gradually, but by the end, one is like a Melrose Place fan: anxious for the next installment. At the end, Mr. Zeiger delivers an update on each of the students he's been tracking.

He hopes he's found the son he went looking for, and he plans to write Danny a letter explaining his relationship with Danny's mother. He also worries about Michael's death towering over Danny as much as it does over him.

"I guess it's a lot easier making a movie than being a dad," Mr. Zeiger concludes. He's right, but his strong work in The Band makes it a close call.