There’s an eclectic dive bar in the East Atlanta Village called The Earl where you’ll find neo-bohemians rubbing elbows with overpaid uptown yuppies who’d heard the buzz and come slumming. The Earl has the best (the only?) Salmon BLT you’ve ever had and keeps a curious mix of songs in the jukebox. I know this from personal experience because it’s two miles from my house.
In his film “Brass Tacks” Director Gavin Dougan has captured the southern spirit of The Earl and of an Atlanta scene that you won’t see unless you look for it: down in the neighborhoods away from the glitz and soulless sparkle of the uptown corporate zone and even away from an all-too-earnestly PC and boring midtown.
This is a young working class Atlanta with hopes and dreams of something better. Life on the low end here is hazy and laid back, as relaxed as summertime. If you’re on the skids and trying to find your way this is the place to do it.
The Earl serves as a set for scenes in “Brass Tacks”, which follows a jazz / hip-hop / indefinable-something-else band called “Positive Propaganda” trying to make a go of it without compromising their ideals of how music should be made and enjoyed.
The band (formed for the film) is as tight and solid as any real band. Their “free jazz” style is showcased in concerts that Dougan shot live. The sizzle of live performance comes through in the film raw, real, and electric. The sound quality of the music is extraordinary given the low-budget indie look and feel. These live sets are where the film shines and the professionalism of the filmmaker and musicians is evident. Dougan chose well to feature the songs in their entirety. Whatever you think of the rest of the movie it’s worth your time to experience the music. The resonance of two saxophones in harmony and the wild energy of the style is pure delight.
The film falls down when the band isn’t playing. The weak, meandering plot is focused on saxophonist Nick (Rob Mallard,) and his band mate Curtis (Kebbi Williams, real life player for Outkast). These two are friends working hard manual labor day jobs and spending nights partying, romancing the ladies, and playing their unique music in seamy spaces.
The side-players include some tired two dimensional standards: the A*****e-LA-Music-Producer, the Cool-Indie-Record-Label-Guy, the Ditzy-Blonde-Southern-Belle, and a stoner who looks for all the world like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
Nick wants to date beautiful Tamara (Eisa Davis) but is too busy screwing waitresses in the bathroom of the bar. Among the members of the band there’s confusing alcohol-slurred conflict around whether they should focus on more commercial music (Shaggy says f**k that s**t). Most of the characters are annoyingly mild: Nick at his most conflicted is still a genial guy with a passion for life. A scene with Nick’s minister father reveals his respect for the old man and his deep roots in religious faith.
It’s telling that during the showing I attended at the Atlanta Film Festival the last two reels were swapped and no one noticed until the film was restarted in the correct sequence. This movie is far more about grooving on the experience than it is about following along. Of course the Atlanta audience got a real kick out of seeing our hometown painted artfully on film.
Atlanta is made of sultry sticky summer heat, the smell of magnolia and jasmine, and the endless greenery that is everywhere here. Ed Myers’s cinematography puts you right there.
The dialogue is awkward, the acting is missing, and the sound quality for everything except the musical performance segments is poor. The film lacks polish though there are moments of real brilliance. Dougan finds his voice when he shares his vision of the city without the forced, inane plot and the film really works when the musicians stop trying to act and just play. There’s a lot of extraneous, distractingly amateurish fluff but we believe in and care about the two main characters and ultimately the true heart of the movie shines through those flaws.
“Brass Tacks” sometimes captures our unique southern sensibility beautifully and despite its failings still gives us a soulful look at musical joy and freedom informed by struggle and disappointments.