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Fishbone still plays

Documentary casts sunshine on twists, turns of singular band
by: COURTESY OF JOHN SCARPETI The Reel Music Film Festival will screen a new documentary “Everyday Sunshine,” which traces the band Fishbone’s history, influence and struggle as distinctive, genre-blending artists in an unforgiving music industry.

Early in the documentary “Everyday Sunshine,” Roger Perry, original manager of the fiercely eclectic band Fishbone, says: “Had they been less of a democracy, they would’ve been more successful.” Indeed, Fishbone’s insistence that all its members contribute to the songwriting made the African-American band one of the most exciting and original musical acts in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nobody really knew what might happen when bassist John Norwood Fisher; his brother and drummer Phillip “Fish” Fisher; front man and saxophonist Angelo Moore; guitarist Kendall Jones; trumpeter “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby III; and keyboardist-trombonist Christopher Dowd took the stage. However, all that showmanship and artistic integrity, as the documentary indicates, eventually got a bit exhausting. In the latter half of the movie, for example, Moore is shown falling in love with a Theremin — an electronic instrument one plays by waving their hands over it — much to the chagrin of his band mates. The footage compels the viewer to ask: at what point does following your muse devolve from a sacred calling to silly self-absorption? It’s a debate the band members themselves — particularly Moore and Norwood Fisher, the only founding members regularly playing in the current incarnation — never really settle. However, Moore addresses a larger question when he states, “Rock ’n’ roll is black, and rock ’n’ roll is white.” It’s a vision Fishbone adhered to more forcefully than almost anyone else in the segregated pop music era of the 1980s and ’90s, and “Everyday Sunshine,” narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, documents the price they paid for doing so. Native son Portland native Lev Anderson, a former urban planner, joined with award-winning music video-maker Chris Metzler to spend four years with Fishbone documenting how all this angst and struggle played out. Anderson returns home this Friday, Jan. 14, to answer audience questions following a screening at the Reel Music Festival. “This is something for people who’ve never even heard of Fishbone,” Anderson says during a phone interview from his home in Orange County, Calif. He notes he and Metzler decided not to make a movie that would appeal only to hardcore fans and “music wonks.” Instead, they focused on the band members’ personalities as well as their place in the larger context of American racial relations. “I could’ve made two different kinds of films and be just as happy with them,” he says. Anderson, 36, a native of Northeast Portland, is a 1993 Grant High School graduate and the son of Portland painter Carola Penn and Dennis Anderson, who died in 1987. His father was a social worker and an audiophile who took his son to see Fishbone in 1985. “As a 10-year-old, it was the perfect music, high energy,” Anderson says with a chuckle. He didn’t see the band again for a couple of decades, but when he did, he knew he wanted to make a film about them. “I knew that they were all characters who had good strong compelling personalities,” Anderson says. “Their musical journey kind of mirrors broader historical movements,” he adds, noting Fishbone’s members were bused in the late 1970s to a mostly white school from South Central Los Angeles. There they were exposed to the bands the white kids dug — Led Zeppelin and Rush, for example, groups that would influence the Fishbone members to tackle the kind of metal and hard rock that most other black performers ignored. “They created their own sound and never really strayed too far from it,” Anderson says. “They were always these perpetual outsiders. I wanted to know what makes them hold onto (their vision).” He and Metzler were able to corral actor Fishburne to narrate the documentary because he was a former nightclub bouncer who “knew the guys back in the day.” “He was kind of offended we didn’t ask him to interview them,” Anderson adds with a chuckle, noting he and Metzler thought Fishburne had the ideal narrator’s voice. The Portland debut of “Sunshine” is part of a campaign that began last summer to show the movie at various film festivals before its theatrical release later this year, Anderson says. He notes the filmmakers got all kinds of help from Fishbone fans around the globe, who shared posters and footage of the band, and a common theme emerged — the massive positive effect Fishbone had on its audience. For example, he says, Fishbone particularly appeals to black music-lovers who love their own culture’s sounds but also want to hear them mixed up with “white” punk rock and other types of music. In particular, he recalls a young African-American woman standing up after a showing and telling him: “I just want to say that the only time I’ve felt comfortable was being at a Fishbone show.” Meaning of success “Sunshine” shows Fishbone as funny, cocky and kindhearted men who conquered the Southern California Caucasian punk rock world in the early 1980s. It documents the time when Fishbone were the kings of the rock ’n’ roll underground, careening wildly from jazz to funk, ska to punk, metal to New Wave in front of sweaty, jumping crowds. The band blew away any group crazy enough to share a stage with them, collaborated with dozens of name artists, from Little Richard to Rick James, and is revered by everyone including Gwen Stefani, Flea, Mike Watt and Branford Marsalis, all of whom appear in “Sunshine.” On that note, “Sunshine” is painful to watch at times because it makes you want to shake the somewhat whiny Fishbone members’ heads and have them realize just how successful they were — millions of bands would kill to have one-tenth the acclaim Fishbone has. On the other hand, if you went broke creating some of America’s most interesting music — and Moore and Fisher, in particular, have struggled with money, the film implies — only to watch far less adventurous musicians make bank and then some, you might be a little bitter, too. Without giving away the ending, everyone loses and wins in the “Sunshine” saga, which involves police and racial violence, stage dives, bare chests, love gone bad, a kidnapping, God and polygamy. The documentary is strongest in its first third, splicing animated footage of Fishbone members in junior high and high school getting to know each other. It’s like watching “Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids” jamming in the TV cartoon series’ junkyard, and it’s deeply moving to see how clearly the band members’ friendships created the music, not the other way around. For all their complaining, it’s impossible not to like Moore, Norwood and the rest of the gang, given their humor, insight and humility in the face of the tragedies that befell them. “Fishbone still plays,” Moore says at one point. “That’s a prayer answered right there.”