New Jawbreaker Documentary, Don’t Break Down, More Redemption than Nostalgia

The story of foundational punk band, Jawbreaker, is equal parts cautionary tale, mythos, and the brutal reality of the ways in which human relationships tend to disintegrate. Sometimes, though, that

5 years ago

The story of foundational punk band, Jawbreaker, is equal parts cautionary tale, mythos, and the brutal reality of the ways in which human relationships tend to disintegrate. Sometimes, though, that disintegration can eventually lead to a resolution that appears unimaginable on the surface. The ostensible “plot” of Don’t Break Down, produced by Dan Didier (The Promise Ring, Maritime) and Keith Schieron (Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo), is “what happens if we re-unite the three estranged members of Jawbreaker in a studio to listen to their old master recordings?” What the film becomes is something much more potent.

To understand that one has to look at the history of this band, the music they have performed, and where they are now. It’s that last part that makes the context of the film that much more interesting. After the better part of 20 years apart, Jawbreaker reunited in 2017 to play Chicago’s mammoth Riot Fest. Since that show the band have kept it together to the point that they are currently touring with big appearances scheduled at Riot Fest, once more, and Gainesville, FL’s The Fest in the coming months.

So how did three guys who had largely moved on with their lives find their way back together? This film doesn’t get too deep into the particulars of that tale but what it does do is show the band, Blake Schwarzenbach, Adam Pfahler, and Chris Bauermeister, in the initial phases of the ice cracking. The film goes into depth discussing the band’s formation, ascent, and rapid descent before going into Jawbreaker’s legacy as a “band’s band”. Even still, it’s a complex history which is exhibited in the first minute of the film.

It all starts with the question of “where did it all go wrong?” In essence, that’s the question of one of punk rock’s biggest break-ups and the ensuing legacy. One can’t really discuss Jawbreaker without talking about their dissolution. At least, that was the narrative arc until a couple of years ago. Since the band’s reunion the question has morphed, in a way, to “what took you so long?” Don’t Break Down seeks to answer the former question by addressing the latter.

To understand how influential the band were just take Billy Joe Armstrong’s word for it. “I thought they were going to bridge the gap between Green Day and Nirvana.” This is the kind of stratosphere the band were expected to fire off into at one point in their existence. It’s cameos like Armstrong’s that help carry the narrative of the film because much of the band’s legacy is based upon the public perception of them. There is ample screen time given to Pfahler, Bauermeister, and a somewhat reticent Schwarzenbach. However, giving time to the Geffen Records rep that helped sign the band to their ill-fated major label deal, Green Day’s frontman, and one of the best (punk) rock writers/critics of any era (Jessica Hopper), among others, is part of the film’s genius.

Perhaps the biggest pivot point of the film, though, is the discussion of Dear You, the major label debut and swansong for the band. The album has become the rorschach test of how you view them. Their earlier material is widely accepted as having been wildly original, arguably quite innovative, for punk music in the ‘90s. Then came the big, shiny, musclebound production that was their final album. It was roundly rejected by fans as “selling out” and the film relays that sequence in a way that those who weren’t around for it can understand yet sounds absolutely shockingly stupid in hindsight. Of particular pomposity is where the film talks about those “fans” who bought tickets to the band’s last shows only to turn their backs to the group on stage when they played songs from the album. It sounds ridiculous because it is but it also speaks to one of the ongoing and age-old problems of the punk scene: gate-keeping and “selling out”.

As Hopper notes, “I wanted them to be huge but I also thought they fucked up” and it was a similar sentiment for many of the band’s core audience. It was a long road to get to that fuck up, though, and this film expertly weaves footage in and out with interviews with that of the band, reunited in a studio listening to their old recordings, to give us a fuller picture of the rags to riches to rags to who knows what now story of the band.

Overall, the film, much like the band, fluctuates between solemnity in telling a narrative to moments of smirking laughter at the absurdity that was their existence. There was a certain sophistication to Jawbreaker that didn’t exist in other punk music of the time. They did things instrumentally and on record, as well as lyrically, that other bands simply couldn’t or wouldn’t. This film shows all of that, too. It’s all of these things that wound up resonating with people and, much like the reality we live in where this band exists again, gave it a redemption arc in the first place.

The band may have disappeared but Dear You, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Bivouac, Unfun, and all of the rest of their recorded history didn’t. The closest it came was when Geffen allowed Dear You to go out of print (Pfahler essentially saved it as demand for it would later result in a vinyl reprint). Since the band were no longer around, people who wanted to hear that music again were forced to pick up instruments themselves and form their own acts often covering Jawbreaker songs. This is portrayed expertly in the film and shows why they were, indeed, a “band’s band” after all showing standout artists such as Lucero, Jon K. Samson, and the outstanding Julien Baker with their renditions of the band’s material.

Without the hindrance of being labeled “sell outs” or the general cliquishness of the mid-90s punk scene to deal with, suddenly their music gained a new life. It was no longer about being the most “punk” band in the scene and, in a way, it opened doors for many others because being “punk” was no longer the main priority.

“1, 2, 3, 4, who’s punk? What’s the score?” Indeed.

Don’t Break Down releases August 6 and will be available digitally on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. Streaming will be available on Amazon Prime.

Bill Fetty

Published 5 years ago