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Friends Forever, the feature-length debut of Ben Wolfinsohn, follows bandmates and professed “Friends Forever”, Josh and Nate, as they travel across America, spreading the news that rock-and-roll is not dead. Or maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just dying. To be honest, after three viewings, I’m not sure if Friends Forever is trying to save rock-and-roll or kill it altogether. What is clear is that, no matter what, it’s going to go out kicking and screaming.

It all comes down to we’re just rock-n-roll. We’re taking the basic elements of rock-n-roll, throw ‘em all into one quick 15-minute segment, try to bring the spirit back. –Friends Forever

Closer in sprit to American Movie than Spinal Tap, Friends Forever presents a picture of “artists” working at their craft against tremendous odds. It is a story that is largely, frankly, depressing, leaving the viewer searching, hoping for inspiration but coming up empty-handed. Traveling in van and pickup truck with dogs in tow, Josh, Nate and co-conspirator and light girl, Jenn, perform mini-rock drum-and-bass spectacles curbside from inside the van, complete with smoke machine, light show, pyrotechnics and elaborate costumes. Drawing spectators who watch principally in confused wonderment as though witnessing an accident, Friends Forever is rock-and-roll as car wreck; twisted, smoking, fatal, fleetingly fascinating – artistic expression through technology in ruin. Even after 80 minutes of film, one cannot find much to say about their “music,” as there is none to speak of. There’s plenty of noise, but I suspect even lovers of noise rock like that hammered out by Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten, or Throbbing Gristle will find little of value here. The band’s label name says it all: N.G.W.T.T. a.k.a. “Nothing Gets Worse Than This.”

That’s my new band, Incrediball Boy. It’s a big huge ball structure with arms sticking out of it – and each arm’s going to play a different instrument. –Josh

Perhaps it’s a joke. That’s what this viewer wondered for some time. And possibly it is for some of the band members. Josh (a.k.a. “Cunt”), one half of the core of Friends Forever, displays no depth whatsoever as either musician or personality. True, he is given considerably less attention in this film than his counterpart, but one suspects this may be because he has less to offer. Much more the stereotypical “slacker,” Josh spends his screentime doing his best to deliver ironic humor and rambling about a variety of idiot schemes, from his “side projects” which appear to be nothing more than ideas for more costumes to plans to transform his van into a flying machine or transform the United States interstate system to automatically dispose of disabled vehicles. Josh is credited as the bassist for the band, though there is scant footage of him playing the bass. Most of his performance is dedicated to falling out the van window while wearing a mask and then either throwing or burning the bass guitar – contrived rock rebellion made all the more pathetic by its well-choreographed predictability, occurring at every performance shown on this film.

I’m going to do this song in French eventually but I’m going to do it in English tonight. –Jenn

Jenn (a.k.a. “Jeannie Gateau”), the vacant light girl, seems to serve little purpose aside from hanger-on and source of sexual tension. While the film briefly touches upon her contributions to the band and her own ambitions, musical and otherwise, one suspects she, like Josh, comes to the project with more narcissistic motives, simply in love with being hipper than thou. Her well-practiced vacuous, mouth agape gaze annoys until she opens her mouth to share anecdotes of her urine-drinking days, leaving the viewer wishing she’d slip back into mute idiot mode.

I don’t know how to play the drums to begin with. I feel like I’m offending anyone who does…I have absolutely no talent. –Nate

Thankfully, Nate (a.k.a. “Wizard 333”), as the dutiful drummer, seems to serve as anchor for both the band and the film. The underlying duality of the film and the band and personified in Nate as he is at the same time the most tragic and heroic person we meet in the film. He cares about the music. While this seems lost on the other band members (and is most likely definitely lost on the dumbfounded “audiences”), I found my initial cynicism faded slightly as the film, and picture of Nate, developed. While admitting he knows nothing about playing music, his heart seems in this project entirely, and it shows. And while no one in the band ever voices any aspiration or ill-conceived expectation of “making it big,” one senses that if anyone had that secret hope, it would be Nate. While the others are in love with the avant-garde image of both themselves and the project, Nate worries about improving his skills as a musician and actually succeeding at something.

Concentrate more on the music and less on the gimmicks. –Las Vegas audience member

Overall, Friends Forever, like the band itself, goes nowhere. It travels in a circle. You’ve learned about the band during the ride, but they’re right back where they began – and that’s probably where they’ll be tomorrow. Therein lies the tragedy of Friends Forever. Despite glimmers of hope and what may even be interpreted as bits of genius, musical and otherwise, the design of a project like Friends Forever is ultimately destined for failure – the “spectacle” of rock without any of the soul. One leaves the film wanting more for the band, and for rock-and-roll in general, even if they don’t want it for themselves.

The documentary itself is just as frustratingly constructed. A patchwork of a variety of film and video footage of deliberately varying quality, Friends Forever rapidly annoys the viewer with a “lo-fi” feel that’s too calculated to be endearing. The shallow presentation coupled with the shallow sensibilities of many of the participants make the viewer feel as though they’re sitting through an overlong MTV reality show as opposed to a true film. The style mellows out, however, as the film progresses and frustration subsides somewhat as the intentionally grainy scenes diminish in frequency. Director Ben Wolfinsohn brings nothing new to the documentary, but does succeed in keeping the viewer’s interest (if they can stomach the subject matter) while presenting the material through the ordinary conventions of interview, archival and documentary footage. All in all, Friends Forever can be half-heartedly recommended for anyone interested in rock-and-roll outside the Billboard charts. While you may find nothing to like in the band or the “music” they create, it may serve to inspire those with rock-and-roll dreams of their own; if these guys can achieve even this level of success, you may indeed make it, too.

The DVD, from Plexifilm, is impressive enough. Extras include trailers, “where are they now” biographies and clips (though entirely fictional) and deleted scenes - and everything from the menus to the packaging is fresh and eye-catching. I look forward to taking a look at future Plexifilm releases as they seem as they may promise a breath of fresh air in what can sometimes prove a stale and sedate genre.

Mark A. Nichols