An amazing story of one of the most important and influential bands in punk rock history who never got the recognition they deserved but should be a household name. One of the best band documentaries you’ll ever see.
Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All
A film by Deedle LaCour, Matt Riggle, Justin Wilson, and James Rayburn
In the early 1980’s it was not cool to like punk rock. It was so uncool most people who were into punk rock were picked on and some were even attacked. People felt threatened by it and the “in crowd” certainly didn’t take a liking to any “punk rock weirdos” with their funny hair, funny clothes, and what they thought was weird music. As a kid who didn’t fit in with the in crowd once I reached junior high school, my discovery of punk rock was just was I was looking for. Finding punk rock was like finding my place in life and it was a little scene that I felt I fit in with. It introduced me to a lot of like-minded friends and a whole new world of great and undiscovered music that didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before and wasn’t what everyone was into. Punk rock was my salvation and who knows what my life would have been in those difficult teenage years without it.
I can tell you the first time I ever heard the Descendents, it was on our local high school’s radio station when I was in eighth grade. A couple of older punk rock friends of mine had a radio show and they both had a lot of great punk records and would play them on the show. They played “Catalina” and it totally blew me away. I used to record the shows and I wore out the tape that was on from playing it so often. That song was from their Milo Goes to College album, which just so happens to be their best record (and it was the only album they had out at that time). It took me a while to find that record due to my limited resources and the small amount of stores in the suburbs that carried punk rock records but when I found it one day it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I was so excited and I couldn’t get home fast enough to listen to it. I soon found that every song on that album was as good or better than “Catalina” and that it was a perfect album, one that I would almost always play from start to finish repeatedly. It is in my personal top five greatest punk albums of all time and I still listen to it all the time.
What made the Descendents really stand out from the other punk bands of the time was the lyrics. They wrote songs that expressed many of the things I was feeling and going through at the time. The songs really spoke to me, I could relate to them and they made sense to me. The subject matter made me feel like there were other people out there going through the same things and I wasn’t alone. In fact the same lyrics still spoke to me later as an adult when going through some rough times with things like relationships. This was all backed by an amazing band that played punk and hardcore blended it seamlessly with a sense of melody. I’ve said it for decades now and it was echoed by people in this film that the Descendents invented pop-punk and if it wasn’t for them, the bands that became huge playing an inferior style of that music years later wouldn’t even exist without them and it was a real crime that they were far more popular and successful than the Descendents were. I used to joke that these bands should give the Descendents royalty for all their album and ticket sales. It is a crime how overlooked the band was in the bigger picture of the world by kids who grew up worshiping NOFX, Green Day, Pennywise, the Offspring, and the like.
Filmage is a documentary movie that tells the story of the Descendents and All, which on paper is the same band with different singers but wasn’t in the eyes and ears of the world. It starts with when Bill met Keith Morris and then a member of The Last and continues up until the present and it is a fascinating story that will take you on a bit of an emotional roller coaster as well. Nearly every surviving member of both bands participated in the film with recent interviews and there were interviews and soundbites from many of their peers, fans, families, and bands who were both influenced by the band and/or recorded with Bill Stevenson. Some common threads among everyone in the film is how great the band was even from the start, how influential they were, and how it is shocking how under appreciated they were by the masses and that they deserved to be one of the biggest bands on earth. It was apparent in the band-member interviews just how fond each member is of the other members both past and present. They were all like a family with Bill being the patriarch who ran things and set the course for the direction and operations of the band. The members pulled no punches in pointing out how meticulous, what a perfectionist, and how set in his ways that he is, but aside from Dave Smalley who came across as slightly resentful, no one complained about it and were able to laugh at how many takes they had to do in recording sessions before Bill felt like they got it right. They also went into detail about how grueling and relentless their touring and recording schedule was and what a massively strong work ethic that the band had, fueled by Bill, which would likely kill most people. Through it all though you really feel just how much these two bands meant to everyone, especially the band members themselves. These bands were their lives and became their jobs for most of their lives (excluding Milo who didn’t want the band to become his job and kept leaving for his career in science).
As the story progresses, they go through how each member joined and the why and when of each member that left the band over the years. They were honest and there was no negativity or mud-slinging anywhere in the film. They cover briefly the recording of the various records and that is really where the only gripe I had with the film lies as the music nerd in me wanted more details about recording the records and the stories with how they worked with the various labels their records were released on but that stuff really isn’t necessary for the lion’s share of the audience of this film and it is far better to have a film that leaves you wanting more instead of wishing for less.
The film also gives nearly equal time between the two bands and gave some great history of Milo leaving and the formation of All. Despite the fact that All was an active and full-time band for far longer than the Descendents, they always had that stigma of not being the Descendents among music fans, especially fans of the Descendents and the band members give a very honest assessment of that issue. It couldn’t have been easy for them as the Descendents, and specifically Milo (who was the poster boy for the band and one of the best punk rock frontmen ever due to how he was just like us), had left incredibly large shoes to fill in the hearts and ears of the fans in the years that they were inactive and the rest of the band was doing All.
The film went further into the All story before All was interrupted by the reuniting of the Descendents. They put out Everything Sucks and toured that year and played to the biggest crowds in the band’s history at that point and just when it looked like the world might finally be catching up to them and the band would finally start getting the appreciation and success they deserved, Milo went back to science and then All just picked up where it left off and soldered on as long as they could despite diminishing returns. And that’s also when the movie takes an emotional turn when the subject of Bill’s relationship with his father comes up as well as Bill’s near-death health issues. Everything happens for a reason they say and Bill’s health issues and massive debt he incurred led to Milo striking a happy balance in his life between music and science in order to give Bill a chance to make some real money to get out of debt and the band is finally reaping the benefits of their greatness as they have spent the last few years on the festival circuit playing to tens of thousands of people night at things like Riot Fest and Fun Fun Fest. It seems the world finally caught up to the Descendents and they are playing to huge crowds, something they really should have been doing for the last 20 years and they deserve every dollar they are making and then some and they are often doing double duty and performing All shows at these festivals as well which means All finally might be getting their just due.
The film is 90 minutes long, it flies by in the blink of an eye and you will be glued to your seat while watching it. It is such a great story that hits you right in the heart. These guys come across as such genuinely nice guys (and I can vouch that they are as back on the Descendents All tour they spent well over an hour with some friends and me doing and interview which was the most fun and enjoyable one I’ve ever done and they couldn’t have been nicer, it was like hanging out with friends) and you are rooting for them the whole time and how could you not? The band spoke to us in the most important years of our lives. They are one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time and one of the most unique and influential. They invented a sound that became huge years later. Their story needed to be told so the younger people who grew up on the bands that were influenced by them can really see just how important and special they are and how they are light years better than the bands that followed. And while I’m guilty of not following All for very long for that same “they’re not the Descendents” reason that plagued them, I’m equally happy to see them get their story told in such an honest and compelling way and it makes me want to go revisit their records and make up for lost time. The filmmakers should be extremely proud of this movie, it was clear how important these bands were to them that they’d take the years of their lives and their hard-earned money to make it and hopefully they too will the benefits of their labor as well. A+ guys! You all owe it to yourself to see this film immediately and when you are done you are going to want to watch it again, and again, and again…