So what is it exactly that makes a person want to become someone else, even for a few hours up one a stage? Thats an interesting enough question, but Rich Hall and Kris Curry goes a bit deeper than that with their endlessly fascinating documentary, TRIBUTE, a look at the people in tribute bands and, even, even better, the people who more than love them, they worship them. Few of the usual suspects are here, though. Instead, of Elvis impersonators and the Beatles experience, its tribute band LARGER THAN LIFE wearing Kisss hand-me-downs and the guy who impersonates both George Harrison and Davy Jones when hes not moonlighting as a booker for other tribute bands.
For some, its a way to be in the music biz, albeit on the fringes, but for most, its an escape from their day jobs being mailmen, construction workers and such. And its a mission, whether keeping heavy metal alive of spreading the gospel of Freddie Mercurys genius now that Freddie is gone.
Its easy enough to just put a camera on these guys and let it run. The results would be a fun film. The sequence where a Freddie Mercury impersonator is betrayed by his tights, or another where a Kiss tribute band cant quite figure out how to strap on the heavy metal costumes are a classics of the capacity for humans to scale the heights of absurdity, but Hall and Kurry are obviously fond of their subjects. They never hold them up to ridicule, even when what they are discussing gives one pause self-esteem issues. They also also deeper. Using extended interviews with the members of these bands, the film becomes a sometimes disturbing examination of what happens when people start playing another person on stage, the seemingly inexorable blurring of identity. There are the simple, mostly harmless issues, such as artistic differences between members of The Missing Links, a Monkees tribute band, bickering over a chord change in Pleasant Valley Sunday.
The fans get some face time, too, specifically one identified only as Superfan, a sweet-looking Queen-centric guy who has glommed onto one of its tribute bands, Sheer Heart Attack. He proudly shows off the Queen-dominated décor of his tidy apartment, which includes a shrine where he sometimes burns incense. During the afternoon before a SHA concert, Superfan deals with a mammoth bout of worry over how well the show will go. Compared to him, the guys in the band all put pale in comparison as far as performance anxiety. But theres also a thoughtful side, the one that may see the world through the prism of all things Queen, but contemplates the state of the world. Anxiety abounds as TRIBUTE chronicles the departure of SHAs lead singer for a more lucrative gig in a German production of Cats. And this is where the artistry involved in duplication is laid bare. Its easy to sneer that these guys are wannabes, but theres a level of commitment to a perfect replication of the Queen experience that deserves respect, if not complete understanding.
Of course, the tale of Ripper Owens is included. Hes the buy who played in a Judas Priest tribute band who replaced one of its original members. Owens doesnt make an appearance, but there is a cockeyed look at his old place of employment and the happy smiling faces of the co-workers who turned to Owens for office supplies and general office support. Nothing Owens might have said about his experience could have encapsulated the quantum leap his life has made since then.
Anything carried to an extreme can be corrosive, but what TRIBUTE takes the position that being passionate about something is not in and of itself a bad thing. As Superfan puts it, no matter how bad his day is, he knows that there will be a Sheer Heart Attack concert coming up and that helps him get through it. Whats so wrong about that?
And speaking of obsessions, I first saw TRIBUTE almost two years ago at the San Francisco International Film Festival and have waited patiently for this to find distribution. Finally, the cable network Showtime has come through. Thank you Showtime.