One of my favorite anecdotes from Our Band Could Be Your Life, writer Michael Azerrad’s tremendous valentine to the American indie rock scene of the 1980s, involves the Boston group Mission of Burma. In the days when every card-carrying indie band traveled the country in a crappy, on-the-verge-of-exploding Econoline van, the band decided to do an entire tour via plane. They found an airline offering one month of unlimited miles for a single flat rate — the catch being that every flight had to be taken out of Atlanta. Imagine four guys who, even in their youth, looked like middle-aged clerks at CompUSA, wearily stumbling into an Atlanta airport after a gig in San Francisco, waiting to fly to another show in Seattle. It is a sterling example of the MacGyver-like ingenuity that makes that era of music — a time before there were any institutions in place to make the experience of being a cult group easier — so fascinating.
Not a Photograph: The Mission of Burma Story does not live up to that tidbit. It is an utterly pedestrian rock doc, following the usual formula for artists of Burma’s stature: band meets, develops small following, dissolves in obscurity, proves posthumously influential, gets back together and plays for bigger crowds than ever before. This plotline can work, given the right amount of intrigue, but Burma, despite creating bracing music that was challenging and accessible all at once, are too ordinary to invest an hour in.
Their breakup was not a tragedy — guitarist Roger Miller developed severe tinnitus, hastening the disbanding, but the members admit the group had run its course by that point anyway — and their reunion is not a miracle. Pretty much, it’s just some old friends playing music together again for the hell of it, a reason far more noble than money, nostalgia, bitterness or the desire to finalize a legacy that ended prematurely. But it makes for a way less interesting documentary. They called their 2002 outing the Inexplicable Tour, and that sums it up rather succinctly.
What we end up with, then, is an exercise in near-hagiography for a band whose members will probably agree doesn’t deserve it. Mission of Burma was good then and now, as the recent and archival live footage attests; they’re just not that interesting. In the DVD liner notes and in the film itself, Azerrad attempts to draw a direct line from them to Nirvana, which is not inaccurate, but it still feels like the filmmakers are inflating their importance.
Where directors David Kleiler Jr. and Jeff Iwanicki go wrong is mistaking the Mission of Burma story as greater than the time in pop history it represents. The biography can sustain an entire chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life because Azerrad is considering the underground rock community as a whole. Outside obligatory comments from Sonic Youth, Not a Photograph offers little context for their career and asks all non superfans to care about them as an individual speck in a wide network of artists without explaining why we should. At 70 minutes, it’s about 40 too long.