A Fat Wreck: The Punk-u-Mentary
Fat Wreck Chords knows punk rock. After helping Brett Gurewitz at Epitaph Records for a week, label owner “Fat” Mike Burkett borrowed $20K from his Dad in 1990. Inspired by the seeming ease of the process, he began Fat to become a leader in the punk scene’s second wave, and continues invigorating each ongoing era. It’s not easy to run a record label, especially as the industry landscape has morphed in the past 15 years. With the accessibility of great tunes flooding the internet, the public sees music as commodity rather than creativity. So effectively, there isn’t a giant pile of gold when bands sign to Fat, but that doesn’t stop punk officials (badge and card-carrying) from crying heresy or sell-out when they join the label. The Fat crew seems undeterred and just don’t give a shit about naysayers, though. As you watch A Fat Wreck, it is clear that the label exists as a clubhouse of friends and family creating music out of passion.
The style of this documentary makes that crystal clear. Charting the history of core bands around since its inception, the doc is rich with segue elements. As you’re learning about a trajectory album-by-album timeline, signature tracks snap in for each, wrapping up in an 8-bit Nintendo animation of each band. Adding to the visuals, Jennie Cotterill of Bad Cop / Bad Cop created foam puppets for the label heroes. These characters act out scenes not caught on tape as dubbed over audio narrates. It’s like watching Sesame Street, if Sesame Street included a bit more partying and sunken eyelids.
With drug use and heavy drinking as par for many bands, you wonder how the label manages to function. Mike signs most bands, records with them, and parties with them. The day-to-day operations become clear with a peak into their San Francisco office—It’s Erin Burkett making sure that all of the details fall into place. Mike’s figurehead image as a narcotic-cornucopia eschews him from these responsibilities, and this gets him in trouble with fellow labels. Mike Park of Asian Man Records and Fat Mike both speak out about their roles and responsibilities as creators and curators.
Park says it’s irresponsible to promote heavy substance use, rather that there should focus on intelligence in punk rock. Fat Mike simply retorts that Park is crazy for believing in Noah’s Ark. This segment is followed by a story of Sam King from Get Dead dosing Fat Mike’s drink. A misplaced hallucinogenic animation sequence follows. It’s a funny visual, but seems clunky with the flow of the film narrative. This type of pacing is the hindrance of the doc as a whole. Music and imagery are edited together with quick, rough transitions—like an early draft for a music video. All of the ideas splatter into one another like a loose mood board. I suppose this fits the rhythm of the music, but visually it’s a bit too up and down.
Learning band history from a reliable source (not Wikipedia … El Hefé did NOT go to Berklee School of Music) is the most gratifying. As producer and sound engineer Ryan Greene talks about the recording process, his sporadic tricks for creating a sound are revealed. He is the master of the “Fat Sound” we’ve all admired for decades. These insider notes are like the percentages and facts that baseball fans crave. If you’re passionate about punk, this documentary fills in your scorecard. Odd tales of how to make it on the label are here, and we see Fat Mike pee from a rooftop. What else could you ask for from a documentary covering Fat Wreck Chords?