The Minutemen were the most interesting, humorous, and ideologically energized band to emerge from the California punk rock scene of the early '80s. A San Pedro trio composed of Dennes ''D." Boon on guitar/vocals, Mike Watt on bass/vocals, and George Hurley on drums, they played spiky, quick-witted agit-funk that owed as much to Captain Beefheart as it did to English post-punkers such as Wire and the Pop Group.
Tim Irwin's documentary ''We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen" chronicles the band's formation, career, and collapse with worshipful attention, from the innocence of the pre-punk 1970s -- when rock stars were tiny and godlike, glimpsed from the back of an arena, and Watt and D. Boon, grinding through ''Smoke on the Water" in D. Boon's bedroom, had no idea that guitars had to be tuned -- to the days of being spat on by hardcore kids in Orange County. (''I just got the overspray," muses drummer Hurley. ''Mike and D. got most of it. . . . They always had colds.") Along the way, we learn that the brilliant squeal of D. Boon's guitar was based on a ''political decision" to separate treble and bass -- a detail that seems to capture the Minutemen in all their cranky materialism.
To describe the band as dialectically fraught is to understate it considerably; they were 15 things at once. They were sweatingEverymen, devoutly working-class (Watt would liken his bass to a janitor's broom), advocating ''a band on every block, and a record label on every other block," but they were also -- after their fashion -- art terrorists.
Propelled by punk rock into a unique sonic dimension where everything was barbed, compressed, or knotted into the shape of an idea -- their lyrics are described by one interviewee as ''like haiku . . . or propositions from [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein" -- they somehow retained an enormous humanity.
Part of this derived, no doubt, from the band's sheer physical oddity. Watt was gangling, overwound, wrenching out his bass lines. D. Boon was large -- quite large -- but possessed of that strange, superoxygenated grace with which certain people are compensated for their weightiness, and his stage moves are the most fascinating aspect of the plentiful live footage in ''We Jam Econo." He's an enormous baby-like man skipping lightly here and there, rotating his pelvis, doing floor-quaking bunnyhops that unsteady the drum kit behind him. Now that's punk rock.
Formally, ''We Jam Econo" is unexceptional. Live footage, talking head, live footage, another talking head -- gives a rather didactic rhythm to the project, and as various slumped punk rock veterans disappear growling into their couches, one wonders whether fewer interviews might have made for a tighter narrative. On the other hand, the filmmakers have assembled a remarkable cast of voices, including Henry Rollins, Flea, Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Richard Hell, J Mascis, critic Richard Meltzer, and Watt's mom, and their willingness to participate testifies to the esteem and affection in which the Minutemen were held by their peers.
The Minutemen story ended with terrible abruptness in 1985, when just after the biggest tour of his band's career -- a spot opening for R.E.M. -- D. Boon was killed when the van he was riding in crashed. The music, of course, goes on, and if you want to know where it came from, here's the story.