Posted March 7, 2012 by Becky Ohlsen
If you have even the faintest glimmer of interest in music, or in the daily struggles of an underground artist, you need to go and have your heart broken by this movie. Better Than Something is a documentary about the Memphis garage rocker Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr — better known by his stage name, Jay Reatard – who died of cocaine toxicity combined with alcohol in 2010 at the much-too-young age of 29.
For those who only knew his music or his unhinged stage presence, the documentary’s biggest surprise might be Jay’s calm, thoughtful, articulate manner. Talking to filmmakers Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz over the course of a week not long before he died, Jay doesn’t seem at all like a guy who, for example, once bit the head off a pigeon on stage. (When he describes that particular moment during the movie, it’s with a complete absence of bravado and a sort of bemused wonder; it’s as if half his personality is observing the other half from a distance, with a fiction writer’s eye for the telling detail. Against the odds, he somehow makes this gross-out gesture almost endearing.) He recounts several defining experiences – succumbing to addiction, protecting his little sister from next-door gang violence – with a sort of deadpan tone that’s grave and clear-eyed, rather than numb. And, though he jokes in the movie about taking himself seriously (“Hence my name…”), he was deeply serious about music from a very young age, putting out dozens of records on which he did pretty much everything himself.
In short, Jay quickly becomes someone you want to keep watching. He’s a fascinating, if difficult, character, and it’s impossible not to wonder what he might have accomplished if he’d managed to hang around a little longer. This is not the kind of movie that attempts to solve the mystery behind an artist’s early death or make a big profound statement about it; there’s no sense of fate or poetry in what happened to Jay. You don’t leave the film with any kind of satisfying sense of closure; the story is just frustrating and sad. Which, really, is exactly how it shouldfeel.
Playing nightly through March 15 at the Clinton Street Theater.