Documentaries about rock bands, or rockumentaries (a term I'm not crazy about), depend greatly on one thing and that is of course the band. There are basically three ways to go; film an established band, with a built-in fan base and tell their history, which doesn't always make for a great film, mostly they're about the concert footage. Find an up-and-coming band and capture their rise to popularity; and your film will be a "we were there then." The third and usually the most interesting, at least story-wise, is to find an up-and-coming band and capture the struggle to become known, between art and commerce, and to stay who you truly are. You'll find Golden Days a film about the Brooklyn band The Damnwells in the third category, with some hope for the second somewhere in the future.
In 2001, the Brooklyn band The Strokes were lighting up the music world and record labels were swarming New York looking for new rock bands to sign. And despite being together for a short time, and not having a large fan base, The Damnwells were recognized as a talented band and there was talk of them getting a deal. But ultimately nothing came to pass. A few years later, the band has toured with the likes of Cheap Trick, and are about to release their independent CD Bastards of the Beat when Epic Records swoops in to release the album and signs them to record more music. The world is their oyster.
At the heart of the band is Alex Dezen, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. He's had theatrics in his heart since he was a small child, performing with traveling plays since he was very little, even appearing in The Professional in a cameo with Natalie Portman. After writing some songs he liked; he didn't want his dream of being a rock star to fade away, he quit his steady job and quickly built a band with friends and acquaintances; they practiced and recorded their first album in an unheated storage unit; a fairly typical story for a struggling band. The film introduces all the band members; Ted Hudson, the bassist and old friend of Alex's gets the second most screen time. But Golden Days is told mostly from Alex's point of view. Which is understandable, he lives and breathes for the band; the others seem more in it for the fun of it, and in the case of the lead guitarist as a way to make some money and maybe a name for himself.
Early in 2005 the band is given $90,000 and eight weeks to record their first record for Epic. The band is happy and full of big dreams, but as they get further into making the album, word is coming back that the label is upset about what they're hearing. The band works harder on getting their music to sound more mainstream; something to play on the radio and sell more albums with. More money and time is spent twisting their sound, the release date gets pushed back, and the band is getting worn out. They're quickly figuring out that they no longer get to play by their own rules.
Months overdue, Alex is putting the finishing touches the album; his band is spread around the country, off on their own because they haven't been given any money to live on; the release date is weeks away. It seems that they will soon be enjoying the fruits of their labor. That's when the bombshell is dropped; Epic is no longer releasing the album. To make matters worse The Damnwells owe them $300,000 in studio fees if they want the rights to their own record back. Corporate America had officially taken a shit on some more starving artists.
What does the band do? Should they get back together? Release the album on their own? The film follows the band for about another year, answering these questions and more. This is where the film really thrives, it becomes something different, we learn much more about who Alex really is; that he's not just another kid chasing fame and pussy through rock n' roll. The perseverance The Damnwells have after the collapse of their dream is amazing. It shows that a band doesn't have to sell-out to "make it". The passion of artists is a finicky thing; some thrive in the limelight, others in obscurity. Golden Days is a tale of a band not becoming the next-best-thing and are possibly better off because of it.
This is the second documentary about artist perseverance by director Chris Suchorsky; the first being about his own. Failure came together after his first scripted feature had fallen apart and he decided to turn the experience into a documentary, it eventually got picked up by IFC. Chris met Alex through a mutual friend and directed their first music video. The film took off when The Damnwells were picked up by Epic and Alex thought that their story would make a good film. Which it did, but not in the way they were expecting.
The other thing that documentaries about rock bands greatly rely on is how much you enjoy the music. I personally liked The Damnwells, they have a good indie-rock sound. Of course their music plays non-stop throughout the film, but it never devolves into a music video and the concerts and recording sessions are kept short, moving the story along, not used as filler; which a lot of films of this type do. I would recommend Golden Days to those who enjoyed the film Dig!; similar styles of music, with more accessible characters. The film won best documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival and continues to play festivals around the country. If you're an artist or a fan of indie-rock this film is fun lesson in how you shouldn't let The Man get you down; that if you're simply in it for the money you shouldn't be doing it. Make art, music, films, whatever, for yourself.