Fishbone doc offers bleak Sunshine

A new documentary sheds light on the enduring struggle of influential L.A. band Fishbone.

There are plenty of reasons why Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone is such a massive downer.

Most are pretty standard as far as band documentaries go. The groundbreaking ska/funk/metal ensemble’s story includes the usual ego clashes, psychological collapses, and domestic dysfunction. Nearly every episode is also served with a healthy dose of irony: Gwen Stefani claiming inspiration from an artist (singer/sax player Angelo Moore) who’s currently living with his mother; stylistic offspring like Red Hot Chili Peppers achieving the multiplatinum success that had always evaded Fishbone, a band that, in many ways, blows the Chili Peppers out of the water; clips from Fishbone’s manic heyday contrasting with a tragically somber present, the two remaining original members thrashing for a nonplussed elderly crowd overseas; Moore — after 25 years of making “music for its own sake” brilliance — nixing the idea of a band reunion on the grounds that it wouldn’t be profitable enough to make up for years of watching the gravy train pass him by.

It’s hard not to see his point. At the height of its power, Fishbone was a hodgepodge of divergent artistic visions honed into arguably the best live show in rock. The band had not one, but two pop songwriters, enough musical skill to put a smile on Branford Marsalis’ face, and an alt-rock Little Richard in the form of Moore, a former Jehovah’s Witness-turned theremin-wielding spoken word artist.

Why didn’t they make it? Anyone familiar with rock mythology can tick off the reasons, from their double outsider status (offbeat kids from the L.A. ’hood playing stubbornly unconventional music in a Reagan-ized cultural landscape), to their uncompromising collective vision, one that even a major label push from Columbia records couldn’t translate.

The real tragedy doesn’t start to sink in until about halfway through the film, when Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell comments on the demise of the alternative rock scene, and the attendant rise of a corporate pop era that has given us Britney, the Spice Girls and American Idol. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for that brief early ’90s period, when it seemed that every other hip-hop, rock or pop album launched a new genre. The idea of a bunch of black kids playing stuff that sounded like nothing else out there was definitely freaky, but hey, freaky was good. Current pop culture not only lacks a place for Fishbone, it lacks a way to even explain Fishbone, or, for that matter, the vocabulary to frame such an explanation.

And despite its legendary eclecticism, Fishbone remains wedded to the era that spawned it — the band's tragic flaw is its refusal to compromise an aesthetic that was part busing-fueled suburban bohemia, part Reagan-era angst. As with people, a band’s character is often determined by not just its environment and influences, but the hardships it faces, and its reactions to them — as narrator Laurence Fishburne says, “Fishbone couldn’t have come from any other place but Los Angeles.” Busing, the Rodney King verdict, the LA Riots, the LA punk scene — these all added unique colors to Fishbone’s music and outlook (the same racial climate that fueled NWA’s rage pushed guitarist Kendall Jones deeper into heavy metal and black consciousness, for example).

By the end of the film, Moore and bassist Norwood Fisher (the only other remaining original member) are still striking out into unknown territory: Moore insisting on room for his Dr. Madd Vibe doppelganger/alternate personality; Fisher, knowing that there is no oldies circuit for a band that remained underground most of its career, seeking a happy medium that will give Fishbone a shot at reaching new and larger audiences. The only comfort is they don’t have any competition. In the film, Ice-T declares that “there was no ‘pre-Fishbone.’” Judging from the current state of affairs, there isn’t going to be a post-Fishbone for a long, long time.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone is available on iTunes now; the physical DVD release is Feb. 21 via Cinema Guild.

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