SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Just Like Being There’ Pays Tribute to Modern Art’s True Heroes, Struggles to Find Focus
Inside Just Like Being There, a fairly straightforward documentary about the world of rock show “gig posters” and the artist community behind them, is a big idea. Intended or not, the film presents us with the notion that in today’s pop culture landscape we do a lot of consuming of media. From mp3 downloads to streaming films to podcasts and the like, we spend so much of our time consuming everything we can get our hands on. Lost, in so many instances, are the opportunities to experience things. So in those increasingly rare instances – that time you saw The Black Keys play in a basement in Akron, Ohio, the time Tokyo Police Club played that tiny club in Buffalo, NY – it’s wonderful to have connective tissue to that experience. Such is the brilliance of a good gig poster. One look and you’re transported back to that experience. And the emotion you feel for that experience is no different than the emotion expended to make said poster. Therein lies the brilliance of what is exposed within Scout Shannon’s directorial debut: it’s not about the art, so much as it is about how the art makes us feel.
If you’ve ever purchased a gig poster or a custom screenprinted Mondo release, then you may be familiar with names like Tyler Stout, Olly Moss, Jay Ryan, Daniel Danger and Kevin Tong. In this world, these are the titans, and this film explores their lives, their inspirations, their insecurities and the stories behind their art. They are part of a contemporary movement that sprung to life in the early 1990s, rebooting a gig poster business that dates back to the 1960s. With great verve, the doc takes us around to different vignettes within this world, from bands like Tokyo Police Club to very personal moments with the likes of Daniel Danger to a profile of the subsequent movement in movie art prints led by Austin’s Mondo. Where it succeeds is in the intimacy it finds with its subjects. From the all-access nature of some of the interviews to the way cinematographer Jakob Frank presents the subjects (person and poster alike), everything feels intimate. We’re being accepted into this tight community of artists, where we can watch the process and hear about the creative journey. I think of friends I have, like early Mondo supporter and unabashed Tokyo Police Club obsessive Brian Gibson, or the friends I have who spend hours online obsessing over the latest Tyler Stout print and how they will get one. These people will love this doc.
Where the film struggles is luring in anyone who is not one of the aforementioned art-loving stereotypes. It doesn’t quite find a core narrative, a single story that weaves through all of its vignettes. Fascinating as each of the parts are, they never quite become a whole. And a frantic rhythm is the unfortunate result. The film stops just short of charting back the history of gig posters, dancing back and forth between the history of the art form, the history of the annual Flatstock art show, and some tangents, including the brief stop with Mondo and Gallery 1988.
The result is a film that lacks accessibility to a much wider audience. To someone such as yours truly, who is deeply entrenched in that world, or to anyone who has ever been transported back in time by a great gig poster, it plays brilliantly. To unfamiliar parties, it may be hard to make a significant enough connection to the world of gig posters to make it as deeply fascinating as it is to the rest of us. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It will play just fine with its target audience. But a truly great documentary can inspire interest in an audience that is unfamiliar with its subjects. For first-time director Scout Shannon, it’s just one of the growing pains of becoming a great documentarian, finding a focused narrative in potentially hundreds of hours of separate moments. The hope is that he sees that he’s made a fun, energetic film that speaks to the soul of the people who are in its wheelhouse, and sees in its struggles the opportunity to grow as a filmmaker.
And of course, if you’re going to make a few mistakes along the way, it never hurts that your film does capture a big idea. Made with a great deal of affection for its subject, Just Like Being There evokes the moments so many have experienced with a great gig poster, it’s about remembering those important, but often fleeting cultural experiences. As we consume and consume and consume in our daily lives, sometimes it’s good to stop and simply be there.
The Upside: Anyone who has ever bought a poster at a rock show or a wonderful screen-printed movie poster is going to love the intimate portrait painted of the men and women behind the art they love.
The Downside: At times unfocused, the doc misses its opportunity to draw a wider audience to its subject by never quite finding its single core narrative.