4 out of 5
Directed by: Eric Mahoney
I’m not a documentary fan, and so I admittedly only tend to watch those that cover a subject which is already moderately familiar to me. I’m a Braniac fan; I will watch a Brainiac documentary.
When it comes to reviewing those docs, it can thus go two ways – assessed as a fan, or assessed as a standalone work?
I’m taking the former route here, as I found Transmissions After Zero, Eric Mahoney’s Kickstarter-funded doc on the band absolutely gripping throughout, but I do want to be a jerk and include some notes on the latter for any casual viewers, as some of it does float over to my review as a “fan” as well.
Transmissions is essentially structured chronologically to talk through Brainiac’s rise from underground upstarts to being on the verge of likely major label stardom when lead Timmy Taylor died in a car accident, causing the band to very literally immediately dissipate. The tale is told through talking heads of friends and family, as well as notables who were inspired by the band or were in related scenes, and Mahoney does a great job of keeping the interviews on point and rotating through all of the sources at a good pace. Obviously the doc is wholly in favor of the band, so you’ll hear mostly praise, but that doesn’t mean we’re spared some of the truth behind the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants that propelled them through their relatively short career. The interview subjects were also well chosen, spending the most time with the other band members, and family, and people who worked closely with the group at the time. At the same time, I think context will be lacking there for newbies: I know Eli Janney, and I know Delta 72 and Swearing At Motorists, but the doc sort of skirts by how these people are related to the group, until it’s mentioned in passing.
The interviews are interspersed with some flash-y animations, and these are often a weak point: they feel sporadically introduced, and aren’t animated consistently – sometimes directly showing things, sometimes indirectly, sometimes using voiceover from an interviewee… It’s understood that a film funded solely through backers won’t have an extensive budget for doing something more flashy, but these bits unfortunately lacked any character at all. This also minorly applies to the editing: Mahoney employs a cool glitchy style for footage and title cards, and then smartly steps back for the talking heads, but here and there some beats of the story get some extra style which almost ends up feeling disruptive as it breaks from what’s been established.
What I do think comes across incredibly well throughout – for any viewer – is how truly unique the band was. I admittedly came across them after the fact, in the early 2000s, with Bonsai Superstar being my first listen, and I was blown away by the sound. Their albums are still in frequent rotation for me, and even with endless options of music out there to which to compare it, Brainiac still stands out. I was taken aback by that once more during the doc, which is almost completely scored by the band’s music, as hearing it juxtaposed against regular folk talking makes its oddball qualities that much more apparent, and the passion with which all sorts talk about the group never comes across as hyperbole for that reason – you see and hear the proof. There’s also a satisfying confirmation in that the band wasn’t torn apart by drugs or bickering, and that they knew what they were doing was weird and cutting edge, but they couldn’t hold it back. There are the usual stories of on-the-road miseries, but it’s all behind this wall of barrelling-forth of creativity, and lead Taylor’s need to butcher pop potential as much as possible… only to make some of the strangest catchiest songs ever. I kept thinking of someone wholly turned off by the sound – like, presumably, my parents – watching the doc, and while I’m sure it wouldn’t be as gripping for them, I think they’d be able to buy in to the group’s huge influence and legacy.
The special features on the DVD are just cherries on top for the already-converted: classic interview footage, home movies, the reunion concert, more time with Albini… but honestly, I was fully satisfied by the film itself. Mahoney, in an interview on the film, mentioned that it seemed like enough time had passed to approach the band and Taylor’s family on the matter, and it’s true: we “know” the story of Brainiac, but it’s also a very unique situation that hadn’t been properly documented, and Transmissions After Zero was a respectful, informative way to go about it.