OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! If you live on the outskirts of the mainstream, on the border of the fringe, you may know of the experimental band Negativland. In case you don’t, writer-director Ryan Worsley takes us on a literal crash course on the history and stylings of the band in her documentary, Stand By For Failure: A Negativland Documentary.
In 1959 at 5 years old, David “The Weatherman” Wills was obsessed with sound. He recorded every sound imaginable around his home, like the toilets, phone calls, and radio broadcasts. As he got older, his fascination grew, and so did his recording equipment upgrading to reel-to-reel, and he learned how to manipulate and alter audio and thus create a unique form of music. Wills soon teamed up with his childhood friends Richard Lyons and Mark Hosler to form the band Negativland. Lyons was known for creating provocative characters like Pastor Dick and coined the phrase “Christianity is Stupid.”
The three produced a series of albums using the sounds Wills collected as the instruments and the odd sensibilities of Lyons and Hosler as its themes. Negativland found a very niche audience fond of the experimental and the subversive. They also found a home on late-night radio in their hometown in Northern California. They gained notoriety during an incident where they were sued by U2’s management and record label over fair use violations when they sampled (some say parodied) the band’s hit, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. The settlement forced Negativland’s record company to take all their royalties as payment for restitution and legal fees. The band now broke, never blinked an eye.
“…learned how to manipulate and alter audio and thus create a unique form of music.”
Unless you understand what and who Negativland is, Stand By For Failure: A Negativland Documentary might be tough to get through. Worsley’s film is traditionally untraditional. The entire film is presented like a collage of sound and art to represent Negativland’s style accurately. The sounds come from Wills’ personal videos, family alb and band memorabilia, and history. The visuals come from a series of odd clips and art from band super fan Sue C.
Incredibly, the filmmaker manages to piece together the story and history of Negativland, void of transitions and narrative voice-overs, with minimal use of talking head interviews. Most of the story comes from clips of Wills on video captured by the band on a cheap camcorder. News footage is brought in to spotlight the U2 incident and a news story when Negativland seemingly inspired a teen axe-murderer’s killing spree of his family.
As a documentary, Stand By For Failure: A Negativland Documentary is undoubtedly outside the box. You’ve really got to engage with what Worsley throws up on the screen as she tries to match the controlled randomness of Negativland’s music in telling their story. Whether it works or not is solely in the eye of the beholder.
I may not be the biggest fan of experimental music or film, but I was fascinated by this band of eccentric individuals who dared to create art on their terms. If you’re not willing to put the work in, this is not for you. If you want to be inspired by individuals who dare to bust down the doors of art’s gatekeepers, then Stand By For Failure: A Negativland Documentary is the way to go.
Stand By For Failure: A Negativland Documentary screened at the 2023 Oak Clif Film Festival.
"…inspired by individuals who dare to bust down the doors of art's gatekeepers..."