Over the years, Canada has given the world such musical notables as Guy Lombardo, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot and Celine Dion. Lesser known but more intriguing was The Nihilist Spasm Band, an energetic noise music combo formed in the mid-1960s and still playing to appreciative cult audiences. It is a shame that Zev Asher’s documentary “What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band” takes a rather straightforward and quotidian approach to creating a film record on a group which is anything but straightforward and quotidian.
The brand of noise music practiced by the Nihilist Spasm Band requires some patience and endurance, even if you are a fan of avant-garde and outsider music. Actually, calling the band’s creation “music” could lead to a lively debate, although everyone would agree it can be described as noise…rather loud, seemingly pointless and frequently irritating assaults on the senses and sensibility. Don’t bother trying to locate melodies or rhythm here. With the Nihilist Spasm Band, instruments become lethal weapons aimed at the aural functions. It is an art form that inspires admiration or outrage, with no place for middle ground indifference.
Beyond the performance stage, though, the band members are a rather ordinary group and “What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band” presents more than a generous helping of less-than-compelling interviews in which the band recounts their longevity, approach to music and misadventures. For a band which stresses nihilism in its name and music, their off-stage personas are, quite frankly, a bit of a snooze and the band’s history is more than a little dry. Various fans and friends of the band are called in for commentary, but offer no memorable insights. Strangely, the film never allows the band to play a full number uninterrupted.
“What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band” does sneak in a few quirky surprises, including a news clip featuring a shocked and confused R. Buckminster Fuller sitting in one of the band’s club gigs (he had to turn down his hearing aids to keep his sanity intact) and an anecdote on the bizarre decision to send the band to Paris as the Canadian representatives in a world arts festival (disapproving Parisians sarcastically threw coins at the band, which they mistook as signs of profitable gratitude). But these tidbits are few and too far apart.
Fans of oddball music might get a kick out of “What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band”…but it is a shame that filmmaker Zev Asher couldn’t shoot a straight concert film which offers this eccentric group in an unbroken celebration of their very special talents.