Athens, through the looking glass

'80s documentary captures a moment in time

One of the (many) supremely odd moments in the documentary film Athens, GA. Inside/Out depicts Dex Romweber, the bushy–haired, hyper–kinetic guitarist from Flat Duo Jets, playing a duet with the elderly Howard Finster, who’s leaning back on a couch with a banjo. They’re doing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” apparently having a grand old time.

This comes soon after we’ve seen Flat Duo Jets in action, with Romweber screaming his head off, leaping like a spastic punk and flailing away at his instrument like he’s churning butter on a tight deadline.

Released in the early days of 1987, but clearly lensed a few years earlier, Tony Guyton’s film captured a moment in time, when Athens was a launching pad for new, interesting and somewhat eccentric forms of rock ‘n’ roll. The B–52’s had already become a national hit with their quirky, fun party music, and R.E.M. was about to transition from Athens’ coolest band into a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2012, it’s hard to imagine Michael Stipe smiling sheepishly into a camera, laughing, telling jokes and speaking just slightly above a mumble, but Inside/Out reminds us that he, and the other three members of R.E.M., were once upon a time just four more weirdo college castoffs trying to express themselves in a mostly–rural section of Georgia.

On a bare stage (it’s the Lucy Cobb Institute chapel), with no audience, they play “Swan Swan H” and the Everly Brothers’ “Dream,” drummer Bill Berry tapping out the beat on a snare while perched on the back of a wooden chair.
It’s all very sweet, and simple, and nostalgic. And it’s a good reminder of what Athens was – or almost was, depending on how you look at it.

Inside/Out is more like a home movie than a focused documentary. And although its many talking heads – including filmmaker Guyton – bravely attempt to analyze Athens’ cultural ferment, nobody really says anything. There’s a lot of “Oh, I remember those days ...”

It simply was what it was.

Then, as now, there were lots of bands in Athens, from the avant–garde to the ephemeral to the hard and pummeling. In the wake of the success of the B–52’s and R.E.M., many of them got record deals and made a brave run at it, but the majority fell by the wayside.

That said, there are some sublime musical moments in the documentary, including Dreams So Real performing “Golden,” Pylon plowing through “Stop It,” and the aforementioned Flat Duo Jets.

The film also includes Kilkenny Cats, B–B–Que Killers, the Squalls, Love Tractor and Time Toy.

There are poetry readings, copious amounts of brainac artist proselytization, and engaging conversations with the likes of the proprietor of Walter’s BBQ (a musicians’ favorite, it had once been an ice cream joint affectionately known as The Arctic Bitch).

Ironically, Howard Finster achieved more notoriety than many of the musicians immortalized in Athens, GA. Inside/Out.

On the commentary track for the DVD, producer Bill Cody described the day they filmed Finster in his studio:
“If you remember, Howard had visions,” Cody said. “He painted with tractor enamel, in that very small room. And he slept very rarely. The crew had to take 30–minute breaks so that they didn’t get too overwhelmed by the fumes.”

Added Guyton: “Howard had been told in his vision that he was supposed to do 3,000 pieces of art. By the time he got to 3,000 he was making so much money I think he had another vision that told him to go on and keep painting.

“I realized that he wasn’t going to stop at 3,000 when he would refer to his pieces as ‘There’s my hundred dollar piece, there’s my five–hundred dollar piece. And I’m workin’ on a thousand–dollar piece over there in the corner.”

Film screening: Athens, GA. Inside/Out

What: Screening includes refreshments, live entertainment at 5:30 p.m., Finster discussion at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

When: At 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28

Admission: $5 public, free to Telfair Museum members



Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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