by Jami Villers
It Came From Detroit is the ultimate look into the Detroit garage rock scene. From the early days of Motown to the hugely influential band The Gories, from The Dirtbombs and The Hentchmen to the mainstream wunderkinds The White Stripes, this documentary provides an in-depth examination of the music of Detroit Rock City.
James R Petix’s first feature-length film is clearly a work of passion. The film is well-researched and thorough, with interviews that are candid and insightful. The city is depicted as ugly and desolate, a place that boomed 50 years ago and has been in slow decline ever since. As Jason Stollsteimer from the Von Bondies says: “It’s the shell of a great city”. However, from this rubble there is a music community so full of love and support that you find yourself wishing you, too, came from Detroit. The gutted sky scrapers from the city’s long-gone glory days set an appropriately grim backdrop for the hard-hitting garage rock that flourishes in its shadows. Images of anti-gun posters, homeless people, and abandoned buildings are spliced with live footage of some of the best rock bands the town has produced. The juxtaposition is fantastic, giving you a sense of the gritty ugliness of Detroit that inspires this strain of music. Deanne Lovan from the Come-Ons says, “It’s so desolate that there is nothing else to do, other than to create.” Adds Troy Gregory, of The Dirtbombs, “No one is ever gonna give a rat’s ass about Detroit anyways”. Before The White Stripes broke internationally, there was never a sense that something good could come from the Motor City, the bands didn’t expect success, and as such, had nothing to lose. The resulting music was all-or-nothing. The community creates because it has to; the music they make is soul-food and a necessary act of survival.
The White Stripes ushered in a garage rock revival in the early 2000’s, “Anything loud and skuzzy sounding”, rock with a slightly harder edge, originating in basements and abandoned buildings (of which there are many in Detroit) as often as garages, by young people who aren’t often technically proficient at their instruments, but who have a hard need to make music. Detroit is depicted as a town full of music geeks and record collectors, a town with nothing left but a rich musical history: The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, through Iggy Pop, The Amboy Dukes, Mitch Ryder, and MC5, to more recent stars like Electric Six, The Sights, The Paybacks, the Detroit Cobras, and the Gore Gore Girls. We are taken through the dark bars and bowling alleys that make up the Detroit live music scene: the Garden Bowl, Zoots, The Gold Dollar. These venues are dirty, small and dingy, the sound quality is awful and the rooms get so full you can hardly move, but this is a scene so hardened anyway, and so obsessed with music, that you get the sense these bands could play anywhere and be happy. There is a feeling of community that the more well-known music cities don’t seem to have. Competition only arises between the bands when the media finally finds them.
Once the hype really picked up, around the time that The White Stripes began to hit their stride, journalists started calling Detroit “the next Seattle”. The town didn’t know what hit it – suddenly the local bands were in international magazines and music-lovers flooded the streets looking for the gigs they expected to be on every corner. We witness the drawbacks and the danger that too much publicity can bring in a small community of musicians, where the successes of some bands over others creates a divide, resulting in an atmosphere of envy and greed.
The only part of the film that is lacking is the fact that Jack and Meg White are nowhere to be found among the interviewed. One speculates that they are simply too big or busy to be involved, but their absence is the Elephant in the room. The other bands being interviewed are so interesting that it scarcely matters, but the omission of the duo that most recently returned attention to the city is sometimes too obvious to ignore.
The point is made that success can change everything, that it can take people away from the original goal which is so clearly what drives the scene in Detroit: the simple need to make music. Ultimately, though, the film leaves us with a message that Detroit has a music scene that is solid, that has had it’s ups and downs but that will continue to inspire great music, regardless of outside attention. It serves as a fantastic introduction to some bands that would maybe otherwise be unknown outside of Detroit, but more than that is a look into a community that is passionate and sincere, making you re-evaluate your own town a little closer, at your own little dive bars and local punks. Whether or not the rest of the world ever gets to know about our local scenes, right now we get that music all to ourselves, and it’s something beautiful that shouldn’t be taken for granted. So next time you’re in your local dive bar, no matter how obscure the venue or small the town, raise your beer to the musicians up there working shit jobs just to pay for their gear, so they can climb on stage and rock out one more time.