Former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt has a reputation for being emotional, and sure enough, not five minutes into Tim Irwin's documentary We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen, Watt chokes up. It happens when he shows Irwin the San Pedro, CA park where he met his best friend and musical partner D. Boon. As Watt describes how the two 13-year-olds bonded over George Carlin and history textbooks, he looks visibly distraught. Nearly 20 years after Boon died in a highway wreck, Watt still feels the loss.
Minutemen fans feel it too, and Irwin's documentary is full of moments that'll stick in their throats. Like hearing Boon's friends and family refer to him as "Dennis" instead of the familiar "D." Or seeing the band onstage: Boon strangling his guitar and bellowing, Watt popping his bass and puffing, and hulky Sean Penn look-alike George Hurley tapping at his drum kit like it's a typewriter. Irwin also leans heavily on the iconic image of Watt behind the wheel of a van, as the bassist spiels about how the Minutemen were born outside the proper Los Angeles punk scene, and developed an ethos based on openheartedness, working-class politics, and artistic adventure, rather than any codified notion of cool. Boon, Watt, and Hurley were self-taught, and gravitated to punk because it let people like them get on stage, even if they were more into jazz, funk, and Credence Clearwater Revival than thrash.
But for people who are Minutemen fans and movie buffs, We Jam Econo is kind of a mixed blessing. Watt and Hurley tell the Minutemen story well, but Irwin relies too much on corroborating interviews from punk vets like Flea and Ian MacKaye, who talk about how great the band was without offering much fresh insight. Though the movie catches a lot of what made the Minutemen great—from Boon's jagged riffs to Watt's laser-focused aesthetic vision—the decision to lean on frenzied live performances shortchanges the breadth the band's music reached on record. (Murky concert footage is why DVD bonus features were invented.) Irwin also blows past the Minutemen's shining moment: the recording of and ecstatic reception to the 1984 classic Double Nickels On The Dime. And at the end, the documentary only tentatively broaches the subject of whether the band was winding down before Boon died. It's a touchy topic, and one that Watt would be too wracked with grief to answer, but the right question or two could've put all this electrifying music in context. Because genius is fleeting, the best we can hope is that someone records it before it fades.