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Arts and Entertainment

You're Gonna Miss Me DVD Review

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There may be no American musician more ripe for the documentary treatment than Roky Erickson. There’s the tale of great promise in 1966 as the 13th Floor Elevators invent psychedelic rock and gain a reputation as the most other-worldly group alive. There’s a long period of reinvention as he continues to produce great stuff – cryptic and haunted though it is - into the 1980s. There’s a backstory of madness and decline. There’s even a joyful redemption at the end, because as of 2005, Roky’s back with us, performing his first full concerts in over twenty years, and earning rave reviews. (He hits the El Rey Theater on October 28 - buy your tickets now as this is sure to sell out, and based on recent evidence, it’s gonna be a good one.)

And the music itself commands such attention; Erickson’s meld of the sublime and the demonic flows through a rich body of work spanning more than thirty years. Shout Factory’s excellent 2-CD retrospective I Have Always Been Here Before collects the high points and makes a strong case for Roky as one of the shining lights in American rock and roll.

So when I heard, last year, that just such a documentary – Keven McAlester’s You’re Gonna Miss Me - was about to premiere, it felt like the shoe had finally dropped. I missed the screening at last year’s Don’t Knock The Rock festival but the reaction from folks who did see it was noticeably muted. Far from an enthusiastic “You have to see it!”, it was more like, “Uh, yeah… well, it is indeed a movie about Roky Erickson.” It was like asking people what they thought about Deep Throat. They didn’t seem to want to talk about it.

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Now that it’s hit DVD I know why.

Much like last year's The Devil and Daniel Johnston, this film has an annoying habit of making an excessive-sounding case for the genius of its subject, and then completely ignoring the music itself. The commentators, including Patti Smith, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, are eloquent and convincing. But we shouldn't have to take them at their word. If you never heard a Roky song before walking into this movie, you may well walk out asking "What were all those people talking about - genius? I didn't hear it." And you'd be right - you would not have heard more than about 20 seconds of any tune.

This quick-cut approach apparantly isn't due to a time constraint, because there's more than enough time to show Erickson in his later years, sitting in a decrepit house with his mother, disinterested in music and the outside world, living in miserable squalor and confusion. Of course, this is part of his story. But it doesn't need to be lingered on endlessly at the expense of his creative life.

McAlester keeps cranking up the squirminess to the point of repulsion, which is maybe supposed to pass for "moving". Instead, it's simultaneously boring and disturbing. Roky himself looks none too happy to have these assholes invading his home, making him attempt to explain his own condition. The one time they leave the performance footage running for a full minute, we're at a 1987 Butthole Surfers gig where an unsuspecting Roky, having been told "we're going to the store", gets literally pushed out onto the stage to fend for himself. To no one's surprise, he doesn't suddenly regain his strength to deliver an awesome performance; he stands there looking confused while the band keeps waiting for him to start singing.

Roky fans may still feel a responsibility to pick this up, as the DVD cover promises "The Ultimate Roky Fan Experience" with a collection of unedited performances among the DVD extras. And there's some good stuff here, primarily solo acoustic songs plus a superb "Cold Night For Alligators" from 1979 with the Aliens. But even these seem to have been chosen in a way that maps out his decay, sliding from confidence and killer instinct to disheveled entropy. By the time it ends with Roky mumbling his way through a commercial for some local music channel, it's difficult to watch. The short film about his return to the stage in 2005, buried among the Postscripts, is a much more watchable documentary and the highlight of the disc. Had McAlester gone at his film with the same sensibility, we could have had something truly worthwhile. Instead we have a deeply flawed portrait of a man who deserves better.