Monday 24 June 2013

Ripsaw (2013)

Director: Steve Dorssom
Stars: Brian Taylor, Eric Mulvaine, Micha Kite and Steve Dorssom
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Here's something of an oddity: a documentary which I enjoyed a lot but can't really recommend to anyone else. Ripsaw is the name of a band, an obscure power/thrash metal band who played in and around McPherson, Kansas during the late eighties. They're so obscure that not only have I never heard of them (and through gigs, zines and demos, I was active in the underground thrash scene at the time), but they're not even listed at the thorough Metal Archives website. Therefore all I have to go on is this documentary, which suggests that Ripsaw achieved some local success playing alongside name bands like Manilla Road, but split up around the time they recorded their debut album, which may or may not ever have been released. Why would we get a documentary on Ripsaw, you might ask? Well, I wondered the same thing throughout the scant 62 minutes it runs and I'm still wondering that long after it finished.

The obvious answer is that Steve Dorssom, Ripsaw's drummer, felt like a trip down memory lane after all four bandmates met up at a Death Angel show in 2012. He also caught the acting bug from his son relatively recently, racking up credits over the last couple of years in films like Brian Skiba's .357: Six Bullets for Revenge, so presumably felt the urge to debut as a writer/director on a very personal project. I wonder how much catharsis it provided for these former bandmates, who split up for the usual sort of reason: they were simply too young at the time to cope with the strain of living and working with each other 24/7. Egos clashed, words were said and everything that had been achieved up to that point went down the toilet. It's always a sad reason for music fans who want more out of a particular band, but it's still more sad for the musicians themselves, who get to look back at what could have been and can't really put a finger on why it didn't happen.

Any success that Ripsaw has is generic, because the band aren't well known enough for anyone to follow them into the film and they aren't substantial enough to carry it. Unless you were one of the girls who kept the Ripsaw house well stocked with groceries back in 1988, you won't find nostalgia in the band itself, and that restricts the potential audience to a massive degree. While there are some cool photos and live footage from back in the day, there's absolutely no input from anyone outside the guys in the band: no family, friends or fans, not even any musicians who were part of the same scene and played with them. Any such names that come up are restricted to mentions in interview footage with the band members and even this is explored through only two sets of interviews, both apparently shot in a day at the Sheraton 4 Points in Tempe: one set of individual interviews in the bar, then a collective interview out by the pool as the sun goes down.
What I found was that, without attempting to denigrate this particular band, who I'd happily have gone to see live then or now, their personal reminiscences and stories are so relentlessly generic that they could easily be transplanted to a thousand other bands who were doing the same thing at the same time. While that sounds utterly negative, it ended up being the saving grace for me: Ripsaw became Everyband and a lot of nostalgia was sparked as my memory translated personal stories of this particular band into similar stories of similar bands I knew in the second generation thrash scene on the other side of the pond. After all, with very little attempt made to bolster the core interviews with supporting material, this is nothing more than a recorded reminiscence: four guys who once meant the world to each other getting together way down the road to talk about old times over a copious quantity of alcohol. It's a school reunion for a band.

While the opening narration ends with the inevitable words, 'This is their story,' it really isn't. We never really learn that much about Ripsaw, perhaps because there isn't that much to learn. They were a thrash band made up of friends from high school who had all moved on to different cities, but connected again through old school technology to become a band. It might seem impossible to younger viewers, for whom the entire world is immediately available via smartphones and the internet, but these musicians wrote and recorded songs individually on audiocassettes, and sent them to each other through the mail. That's snail mail, not e-mail, as this was 1986, back in the technological dark ages. After spending a year as 'a penpal band', a great description I've never heard before, these four friends finally got together in one place in the summer of 1987 to jam and Ripsaw was effectively born.

For the record, in addition to Dorssom, the guys in the band were Brian Taylor, Eric Mulvaine and Micha Kite. Taylor was the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Mulvaine played bass, Kite handled lead guitar duties and Dorssom backed them all up on the drums. They played live whenever possible, they hosted epic parties at the Ripsaw house and in time, they even recorded an album, courtesy of Kite's grandma, who had been saving up to buy him a used car but was persuaded into paying for studio time instead. And that's about it, as there's nothing to back up the stories they tell. One image is an article on the band, but I couldn't tell if it was published in a fanzine or a local paper, but that's it for press. Lots of old photos are strongly reminiscent of the era but there's no context to build from. All we really have of Ripsaw to take away from the film are a few live numbers from old gigs, obviously recorded on VHS for posterity.
They sound pretty good, to my ears something of a mix of Testament and Death Angel, but there are many influences in play. Taylor and Kite cite the expected thrash groups, Mulvaine adds old school bands like Rush and Led Zeppelin, while Dorssom includes Guns n' Roses, Whitesnake and Tesla. I should add here that this sort of content was interesting to me, but left my better half dry. The same went for the scene stories, because she wasn't part of that scene. While I was at thrash gigs diving off stages, she was seeing hair bands and local stars like Stevie Nicks. Every live song played was a song I hadn't heard back in the day and happily caught up on, comparing it to bands I knew and fitting it mentally into a bigger picture, but to her it was just material she didn't listen to back then and doesn't listen to now, especially during the extended instrumental breaks which I was particularly happy to hear, such things rarely making it into documentaries.

Bizarrely, the recording quality of those old VHS recordings is better than some of the brand new interview footage. There's background noise both inside and outside the hotel, occasionally more than I'd have liked. The light is fine to begin with outdoors, but it deteriorates rapidly until we're almost watching four talking silhouettes. The only footage with decent sound is where Dorssom presumably filled a few gaps in the story later on by his fireplace. He does make an effort to piece this together into something substantial, but there's so little here to work with that it's a thankless task. Mostly he just adds in chapter headings in the form of questions that were answered during recorded conversation. It's capably done but, perhaps inevitably given the amount, much of it is unsubstantial. Who really cares what they drank in 1987? Well, Kite might. He does seem a little worse for wear here, but then maybe he was; the interviews were all shot in a day, after all.

Unfortunately the question I'd have liked answered most is the one answered least, namely what they all went on to after Ripsaw fell apart. Only Mulvaine really answers it, as he joined the army. Taylor is still playing, as is Kite, but I'm not sure what or with whom. It's easy to imagine that Kite is playing blues guitar on street corners, based on this footage alone, but research tells me that he recorded albums with other bands like Psychic Pawn and Born of Fire. We don't even know if these four hooked back up and played together after this. I'd certainly like to have seen that and it would have been a great way to end this reunion. Without it, it feels like it's missing an ending, a personal touch that would have made it more about Ripsaw specifically than a generic band from a particular era. At the end of the day, this was a trip down memory lane for me, but a bigger one for the band, who are the real audience. This film was really made for the four people in it.


Anonymous said...

You sure posted a whole lotta shit for somebody who wasnt into it, LOL! Hey man... I aint nobody special but you can Google my name. I too was a freelance writer.


Hal C. F. Astell said...

: )

I try to give all the films I review a decent amount of coverage, whether I like them or not.

Here I was a lot more into the music itself than I was the film about the music. When's the Ripsaw reunion show?