"What's the secret to your success?" asks a radio DJ interviewing not exactly world-famous rock 'n' roll band the Mekons. It's an innocent question meant to acknowledge the band's longe- vity, currently 39 years and counting. It also opens a can of worms owned by Britain's extraordinary Mekons since the band's earliest recordings and live shows.
Once the self-deprecating laughter subsides, singer Sally Timms answers with a bit of unvarnished truth: "Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end." But, as made clear by American journalist-turned-filmmaker Joe Angio's endearing documentary Revenge of the Mekons, success is something everyone is free to define on their own terms.
Formed at the University of Leeds in 1977, the Mekons began as part of the influential first wave of British punk, along with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and other now-legendary bands. While their contemporaries burned out or faded away, the Mekons repeatedly reimagined their music, becoming the first band to incorporate folk, country and other influences without compromising their punk-era ideals. At times more a music-and-arts collective than a band, the group maintained a uniquely democratic creative process while never succumbing to a music industry that eventually asks everyone to sell out — even though it likely cost them the large audience they deserve.
Revenge of the Mekons blends fly-on-the-wall footage of the band shot between 2008 and 2012 with archival material and new interviews with friends, admirers and collaborators that put the Mekons' largely unknown history in perspective. Divided mostly into chronological sections with titles like "Mekons vs. Punk Rock" and "Mekons vs. the Art World," Angio's film is the work of someone intimately familiar with the band's peculiar charms. It's the rare band documentary that works as both an ideal introduction for newcomers and a detailed and satisfying portrait for longtime fans.
One inspired sequence traces the evolution of a single song — "Afar and Forlorn" from the Mekons' 2011 album Ancient and Modern 1911-2011 — from initial group writing process through studio recording to inspired live performance, with each band member contributing something special in seemingly effortless style. Literary lions Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Luc Sante appear in the film not for objective analysis but as representatives of the band's passionate and devoted following. Franzen speaks for a lot of fans when he summarizes his love for the Mekons with, "They consistently resolve what ought to have been despair and rage into humor — without losing the despair and rage."
The film's early punk-era footage of the band is a rare treat, but Revenge of the Mekons would have benefited from more live material from the band's late-1980s/early-'90s creative peak. A brief but ferocious scene shot at Tipitina's in 1989 leaves us wanting more. The film addresses this era in terms of the band's record-industry misfortunes, a topic that pales in comparison to live shows and classic albums like The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll.
In a rare moment of serious reflection near the end of the film, Mekons co-founder Jon Langford says that the way the band conducted itself over the course of its one-of-a-kind career may be "more important than what we did." It's about staying true to your ideals in a hopelessly corrupt and unforgiving world — and believing that no greater success is possible.