Devoted to their craft often amidst great odds and towering personal challenges, the iconoclastic men, and women who front bands are quite often great fodder for the documentary filmmaker. This especially is the case when said band leader champions music that goes against prevailing trends. Steve Austin, the founder/guitarist/vocalist/primary songwriter of the band Today is the Day is just such an individual. With its shifting time signatures, angular rhythms, and gargantuan sonic intensity, Today is the Day is challenging listening, to say the least. So when director Anthony Short turned his lens on Austin for his documentary The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself, I was looking forward to better understanding the passions that have driven Austin to create such extreme music on the margins for almost 25 years. Disappointingly, Short presents a fairly by-the-numbers flick that does little to stand out from the ever-growing pack of rock-doc films filling up my queue.
Taking its title from a song of the same name on the band’s towering 1997 album “Temple of the Morning Star,” The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself presents Austin as a regular sort of guy who, in addition to leading Today Is the Day, is a sound engineer, dad, and husband. While not necessarily a household name, Austin and his band’s music is revered by fans as evidenced by testimonials that flash on-screen (“If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead a thousand times,“ reads one) and a harrowing story — recounted by Austin — of an entranced audience member who set himself aflame during a concert.
“With its shifting time signatures, angular rhythms, and gargantuan sonic intensity…is challenging listening…”
In a fairly rote fashion, Austin — as the sole voice in the film — proceeds to spin the story of his band’s history, how he met and fell in love with a fan who would become his wife, his views on the downward spiral of the contemporary music business, and the joys and emotional loneliness of touring which buoy his creative spirit but keep him apart from his young son for weeks at a time. None of this is a particularly new or revelatory story which is a bit deflating given how confrontational and influential Austin’s music is. Insight from other musicians and cultural critics would have added some heft to Today Is The Day’s ongoing legacy and influence.
The filmmaker did make surprising two choices, however, that help the film rise above its even more run of the mill documentary peers. The first is the soundtrack or lack thereof. As Austin recounts tales of the band both terrible and wonderful, the music that underpins these stories is only that of a soft, spare, cool piano — something one might expect to find on the soundtrack of a documentary about new age composer Harold Budd or avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell. The same serene score is used even in scenes when we see a sweating, screaming Austin careening about the stage with wild abandon. Not once is a single note from the band’s catalog employed in the film. While this may be a source of disappointment to the die-hard Today Is The Day fan who tuned in looking forward to hearing rare/unearthed concert footage, the effect is somehow enabling and elevates Austin’s stories in an unexpected and intoxicating way that defies easy explanation.
“…cool, serene images serve as a stark counterpoint to Austin’s often heartbreaking tales and raging stage performances.”
Similarly, throughout the doc the filmmaker drops in b-roll of the beautiful, wintry New England landscape that surrounds Austin’s home. Again, these cool, serene images serve as a stark counterpoint to Austin’s often heartbreaking tales and raging stage performances. Given how Austin has continually bucked musical trends throughout his career, both these choices make a strange kind of sense.
Despite making some strong and unique cinematic choices, one wishes that Austin’s story had some greater level of drama. The story of Austin’s near death van accident and the summary emotional, physical, and psychological fallout was interesting to be sure but it wasn’t really anything new fans of the musical documentary genre haven’t heard in one fashion or another before. In the end, The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself is a bit of a half measure that will likely leave both the most Austin rabid fan and newest listener wanting to know more about one of the most visionary artists toiling in the trenches of contemporary experimental music.
The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself (2017) Directed by Anthony Short. Starring Steve Austin.
5 out of 10 stars