Film Review: Straight Into a StormA superficial documentary about rock group Deer Tick that will only appeal to the most devoted die-hards.
Whether capturing something vital about great artists through evocative aesthetics (Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kid), conveying a potent sense of time, place and community through performance (The Last Waltz), or focusing on a tumultuous behind-the-scenes turning point in a storied career (Some Kind of Monster), music documentaries can take many forms. The worst, alas, is the perfunctory fan-service biopic, and that’s certainly the category into which Straight Into a Storm falls. A portrait of Deer Tick on the occasion of its tenth-anniversary show at Brooklyn Bowl, it’s a history lesson-cum-celebration that has nothing to say about its subject, except that this is who they are and, if you like their music, this is how it came to be.
I don’t mean to be glib, but Straight Into a Storm takes a wholly superficial approach to its material, lavishing attention on its musicians without ever trying to justify why this nonfiction endeavor is worthwhile and why anyone not already invested in the band should care about their story. “Story” should be used lightly anyway, as there’s none to really speak of here, save for the rather speedy upward trajectory of the group courtesy of its oft-slovenly singer/songwriter founder and frontman John J. McCauley, who knew from an early age that he wanted to dedicate his life to rock ’n’ roll and, after a number of failed bands, found a following, and then considerable stardom, with Deer Tick.
Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, McCauley apparently comes from a well-off clan whose paterfamilias eventually went to prison, but Straight Into a Storm doesn’t explicate that situation in any substantial way. Moreover, save for a tossed-off bit of talking-head analysis, it doesn’t connect his upbringing to his subsequent wild-man path, which he readily admits in interviews (shot over the past decade, in various states of sobriety) involved copious use of drugs and alcohol. What William Miller’s documentary does do is chart how McCauley went from playing solo to teaming up with his various bandmates, while providing plenty of footage of them appearing in front of adoring crowds at festivals, goofing around with each other, and, per one interviewee, “living the dream.”
With no real outside voices to explain what makes Deer Tick so special, no meaningful insight into their uniqueness, and very few songs allowed to play from start to finish, Straight Into a Storm takes for granted that viewers will find them deserving of this extended cinematic attention. It’s a misjudgment from the start, as director Miller—though shooting with plenty of coverage—fails to come up with anything approaching an interesting angle; instead, he’s just content to merely relish spending some time in McCauley and his collaborators’ company. Created with only die-hards in mind, it’s an in-depth portrait without any depth.