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Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland: Boston Underground Film Festival

Dir. Ryan Worsley (2023)

A profile of the influential and controversial plunderphonics band Negativland.


Every so often, a documentary comes along that challenges your perception of mankind, nature, and even the very fabrics of reality.

This is not that documentary. But it is pretty cool, and is a fantastic introduction to a relatively unknown band that sought to critique everything from politics to religion through their use of media. Negativland, formed in 1979 by friends Mark Hosler and David Wills, had several band members come and go throughout the years, but one thing remained the same: they made ample use of media to critique media, utilizing the concept of “media about media about media.” Stand By For Failure is a film that uses those same techniques by emphasizing frenetic, choppy and often confusing audiovisual components to tell a story about a band that was so much deeper than their often-nonsensical compositions indicated.

The film is difficult to watch and often even more difficult to parse at times, a cacophony of sound and chaos that somehow manages to paint a decent portrait of these “sonic outlaws.” David Wills, otherwise known as “The Weatherman,” was often at the forefront of these sounds, making use of everything from intercepted cellphone calls to blatant ripoffs and recordings of well-known media. Each member of the band were technical wizards, testing machines that most people don’t even know exist to create “music” that pulled no punches but always punched up, seeking to critique the people who really hold the power in our world. It’s difficult to really consider them an “important” band, whatever meaning that word actually holds, but it’s also difficult to not consider them important, especially in the realm of censorship and free speech.

As someone who cares very much about both of those topics, I especially enjoyed the parts of the documentary that talked about Negativland’s pursuit of free speech and fair use. One of their albums was specifically designed to look like a U2 album, which confused some people and was eventually taken down hard by Island Records, almost resulting in the band being completely bankrupt. It didn’t deter them, however, and they struck back, even finessing their way into an interview with U2 guitarist “The Edge,” coincidentally the dumbest-named musician of all time. The point that the band sought to make is a good, worthwhile point, and their stand against propaganda, often carried out by using those same techniques, was fascinating.

It's always interesting to come across documentaries about something that you never really felt the need to learn about before, but interestingly enough for yours truly, that’s actually not the case here. I’ve always been interested in these types of “noise” bands, these industrial, experimental, and electronic bands like Throbbing Gristle and other performance artists. It would certainly be a stretch to call me a fan, and I hold very little appreciation for the types of art that these kinds of artists create, but I absolutely recognize it as art, which I suppose is the first step. If you hold any interest in the subject, Stand By For Failure will deeply interest you. If you don’t, it’s still a fantastically told tale, a film that manages to actually tell a story about media about media about media. That is, of course, if you can stomach the constant upheaval and lawless pandemonium of its visual style.

Who this movie is for: Documentary fans, Music lovers, “Music” lovers

Bottom line: A documentary that is as unrelenting as its subject, Stand By For Failure is a choppily told tale about a truly interesting subject. It’s competently created and is well worth a watch for fans of experimental music, but it will be a difficult watch for some. It’s chaos on camera, with quick-cutting visuals and overlapping sound that often make its audience not completely understand what they are seeing. Of course, the folks behind Negativland would have nothing else, and the film is a great example of the kind of art that they make. If you can tolerate the way the story is told, it’s definitely an interesting one, and director/”band” member Ryan Worsley does a great job telling it. This one is showing at Boston Underground Film Festival, and I was lucky enough to check it out. If it comes to your city and you’re interested in the subject matter, I’d highly recommend that you check it out as well

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