“Ambition Withdraw” is a video documentary, which follows 15 years in the career of a punk band from Chattanooga called “The Unsatisfied” and their never-ending struggle for recognition. The video combines interviews, concert footage, local TV coverage, home movies, and fantasy/music video sequences. It is unusual in the rock documentary genre in that the video is just as frank about the band’s failures as it is about it’s successes, and covers the daily lives of band members, including their day jobs, wives and children, etc. As a framing device, the various sections of the movie are introduced by Dr. Gangrene, host of a UHF low budget horror movie TV show. The Dr. Gangrene sequences are based on an actual UHF show from Nashville.
The Unsatisfied is the creation of lead singer/composer Eric Scealf, whose unrelenting ambitions form the basic narrative of the video. Eric certainly would like the band to make it big, but, as 15 years wear on and the band members get ever older than their target audience, that seems less and less likely. It becomes clear that Eric’s ambitions are really more artistic and spiritual than commercial. He believes in the transformative power of art, and he is a purist. Part of the reason the band doesn’t become more popular is that Eric believes in directly expressing all the pain and frustration that come from his “white trash” background (to use his own phrase), and he refuses to pander by making the music more “fun.”
The Unsatisfied are a fairly typical sounding alternative rock/punk band. They are extremely tight musically, have good arrangements, and have a driving, propulsive rhythm to most of their songs. Eric is a dynamic and appealing performer, with an amazing ability to let himself go and give in to the madness of the music. On the other hand, many other performers in top bands have this ability as well. There is nothing particularly musically innovative or original about their tunes. (I may be spoiled, coming from New York, where it seems that most of the alt rock bands are highly inventive, using musical devices such as unusual meters, balkan melodies, nonstandard instruments like harp or ukulele, etc…) His lyrics occasionally contain startling, beautiful lines (“I got gasoline flowing out my eyes”) but are mostly banal and inexpressive. Eric is like that cliché of a person who is the most creative, talented person in his high school, so far above the other kids in ability and charisma that, never having known another person like him, they all think of him as someone incontestably bound for stardom. (The video features interviews with many young people from Chattanooga, clearly amazed that they personally know someone like Eric.) Then, upon graduation, this prodigy learns that it’s a Big World Out There, and there’s a person like him from every high school, and those who make it to international stardom are on a much higher level of originality and daring than he ever imagined.
The fantasy/music video sequences offer some beautiful and original imagery, such as the blue-tinted scene of Eric as an angel destroying a television with a rock, but, more often, they are sloppy in their concepts, execution, and in the way they are edited to the songs. The special effects are often badly done, and to no great purpose. This sloppiness is not the same as the raw chaotic energy of the music, which is actually very well crafted. It’s just sloppy.
The video is about twice as long as it should be. It is refreshing to watch a rock documentary that is so well rounded, looking into all facets of the band members’ lives, but Eustice could have made all of these points, and made them stronger, in about half the time. The challenge would be to convey the feeling of the long, hard haul of the band’s progress, without making it feel like the experience of watching the movie is also a long, hard haul.
The one thing I could have used more of is complete, uninterrupted songs. The video contains many, many of the band’s songs, but almost none of them are heard all the way through. Scealf clearly is a serious composer who crafts his music and lyrics with a great deal of thought, and it would be nice to hear some of them from their first note to their last. I also would have enjoyed seeing some footage of an actual rehearsal, and learning something about how the band members collaborate and create their sound.
The video contains a little drama at the end, where one band member’s drinking problem means that he has to be replaced. At first I thought this story angle was being blown out of proportion, but my reaction is again due to my New York bias. In New York, where there are so many top-level musicians floating around, it sometimes seems that bands have a new lineup for every performance. Having to replace a musician at the last minute in a smaller city like Chattanooga must in fact be a major crisis.
While it is a bit too long, “Ambition Withdraw” provides the viewer with an opportunity to discover a band that plays high-energy music, and speaks with a committed, honest voice about Southern angst. Within the narrative sprawl of the video, one can find an inspiring portrait of an artist so motivated to express himself truthfully that he is undaunted by the world’s lack of acclaim.