Many bands have reformed over the years, but very few have done it like Swans. They were always a forward-thinking band, but from the outset of their new incarnation they more or less refused to do any kind of “nostalgia” act—you’d get maybe one song, if you were lucky two, from anything before their 2019 album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. If anything they are far more popular now than ever were during the ’80s and ’90s, and now have fawning reviews of anything they do. The closest would be Wire, who while they occasionally drag out one of their “non-hits,” normally stick to the current material, or The Fall before Mark E. Smith passed away.
Naturally, a documentary was in the cards for Swans, because they couldn’t escape some of the rock ‘n’ roll cliches that the band’s sole constant leader Michael Gira clearly despises. Swans initially came out of the punk/no wave scene of late ’70s/early ’80s New York City. All of the bands were to some extent visual artists and writers who migrated to the Big Apple during the explosion of punk centred around CBGBs in the early ’70s. The band Suicide, which actually pre-dates CBGBs, is the missing link between the two. Whilst maintaining a punk attitude, No Wave incorporated everything from disco, obscure avant-garde noise from the ’60s, and a heavy jazz influence, in particular the more extreme kinds of free jazz – Albert Ayler and ’70s Miles Davis were particular favourites of these bands. And now Gira is more of a bandleader in the mould of James Brown than just the lead singer.
The documentary is really a film of two halves: Swans before the announcement that they were reforming and after. Given that Gira is the only constant member and they’ve had almost as many times changes as the Fall over the last 40 years, it’s very much his story. Gira was maybe one of the last great juvenile delinquents in his youth—his parents were not around much, so he turned to petty crime, and when the family unit was beyond help (his mother was a chronic alcoholic) his father took him to Germany. This was the late ’60s, and once Gira got to Europe he eventually just fled, hitchhiked and squatted throughout Europe with hippies. He saw The Doors and Pink Floyd (before they went totally shit), but the crew he was hanging with eventually got to Israel, where he got busted for selling hashish. He turned 16 while in an adult prison there.
The story is mostly told in relatively straightforward way,with a fantastic array of archival materials, and for the most part well-chosen talking-head interviews. The notable exception is the grade-A prick known as John Doran, but then again, The Quietus (full disclosure, I used to write for them) has a huge hard-on for Swans—but Doran doesn’t add much to the proceedings.
The documentary-makers track both Swans and Sonic Youth in an interesting way. The two bands were close early on, but one became very big and the other didn’t—and paradoxically, once Sonic Youth broke up, Swans became much bigger. Interviews include Lee Renaldo and Thusrston Moore, and Jarboe gets a lot of credit as well. There’s a very funny moment where Jarboe sent Gira a fan letter—and Swans were not the kind of band that get fan letters. Gira assumed it was the man in the photo she sent, whereas Moore said he thought it might be the woman. They soon met, fell in love, and she was soon a member of Swans.
The film is pretty honest about why Swans fell apart, and why their relationship fell apart. There is a very touching moment where she gets up to do one of her songs in Athens, GA where she now lives again. Gira is up-front about his alcohol issues at the time, and being a dick in general. This makes it one of the more honest ‘rock’ documentaries in a long time. It also goes into Swans’ botched attempt to become a mainstream rock band with The Burning World, an album that was a total failure – although some of the songs were quite good. They do not mention the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” cover, which Gira famously despises, which was the closest thing they ever had to a “hit.”
The second half of the film is about the band now, and ends when Gira decides to call time on that version of Swans, and their last show in New York in 2017. They were supposed to be back playing this year, but obviously Coronavirus happened. In this section you see the development of the band over the last few years. It’s fairly common for them to now do hour-long songs, having had more contained, traditional song structures previously.
The version on DVD is two hours and 40 minutes—about the same length as their set is now—and 40 minutes longer than the one that played at some film festivals. There are no extras on the standard Blue-Ray or DVD, but if you get it from Young God, it’s available with a couple of hours of extra stuff on a two-disc Blu-Ray. I don’t know if that’s more live footage (incidentally, the live footage on the disc is really good) or interviews. There are some editing choices that weren’t great, but I’m aware that they weren’t working with a huge amount of money while making this documentary.