David C. Thomas's loving, clear-eyed tribute to the Detroit rock band MC5 is everything a rockumentary should be and usually isn't. Then again, MC5 was everything a rock band should be and usually isn't.
The group's revolutionary ride was brief, lasting from 1964 to 1972. But MC5's proto-punk sound, radical politics, and uncompromising lifestyle distilled the counterculture movement at its most turbulent, and despite the band's footnote stature in the pop-culture annals, MC5's sound and sensibilities have had a massive influence on succeeding generations of rock musicians. In other words, they mattered.
Formed by five working-class kids in suburban Detroit, MC5 attracted a fanatical local following with its incendiary live shows, but the band's legend ballooned under the guidance of its activist guru, John Sinclair, the leader of the White Panthers, who managed the group during its early years. The band padded the peace-and-love philosophy of its psychedelic contemporaries with copious helpings of drugs, sex, and political outrage, inviting critical indifference, corporate censorship, run-ins with the law, and the familiar interpersonal turmoil -- all of which combined to derail MC5 after only three albums.
Thomas -- a film and sound-effects editor who makes his feature debut here -- has fashioned an utterly absorbing portrait that is, appropriately, epic and intimate, a "Nova" special and a "Behind the Music" episode all at once. He dug up a remarkable collection of archival material -- old television clips and obscure European interviews, newsreels of love-ins and riots, home movies, still photos, and early performance footage. He artfully weaves vintage sounds and images with recent interviews with the three surviving members (guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who later married the musician Patti Smith, and vocalist Rob Tyner both died in the '90s), ex-wives, and label executives.
While guitarist Wayne Kramer -- for reasons that become obvious -- serves as a charming, articulate tour guide to the past, conversations with bassist Michael Davis, drummer Dennis Thompson, and Sinclair offer revealingly contrary and semi-lucid versions of their shared history. Like the band, however, the final act of the film deteriorates for all the familiar (read: drugs, egos, labels) reasons.
But even the predictable whimper of a finish rings true. Thompson has lassoed the short, wild, luminous life of a rock band that crystallized a mirror-image cultural moment. Both are long gone, both still reverberate loudly, and "A True Testimonial" is a welcome addition to the annals of music history.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.