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Down to the Earth
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
NORTHWEST PASSAGE: The Birth of Portland’s D.I.Y Culture: Directed by Mike Lastra. Featuring Poison Idea, Smegma, Wipers, Dead Kennedys and more. Indepently released, 2006. Not rated. 88 minutes.
Mike Lastra’s Northwest Passage feels a bit like an accidental film. Lastra is dubbed a “video pioneer” on the DVD case, and this shows in the arty effects that appear in his footage from live shows in the late 1970s through early 1980s. But though Passage is filled out with interviews and montages, in large part it’s a concert film. Lastra includes entire songs performed live by a host of bands that combined to form a musical movement in Portland. The problem with this is simple: If you weren’t there — weren’t one of those people picking up an instrument because it didn’t seem that hard — you likely won’t find much to appreciate in Lastra’s nostalgic, music-heavy film.
Passage is a well-meant piece, and the musicians interviewed (including Jello Biafra, Tom Roberts of Poison Idea and, very briefly, Kurt Cobain) seem happy to talk about the period. News clips add some humor as anchors in deliciously bad glasses talk about the “punkers” and interview fans. But late in the film, one of Lastra’s interviewees points out a truth of the era that explains why Passage doesn’t feel like a vital piece of music history: The punk movement was happening everywhere, and on a large scale it was hugely important. But a great number of the individual bands were forgettable. (When the Dead Kennedys take the stage at the Earth Tavern, the setting for much of the live footage, you can see in an instant why they weren’t forgettable.) As it doesn’t satisfyingly connect Portland to the larger punk movement, or locate punk on a larger musical landscape, Northwest Passage is more memento than portrait. (Opening Friday at the Bijou.)