Music heads are generally suckers for movies about “Getting the Band Together” or “Getting the Band Back Together.” Titles of varying quality featuring fictional groups run the gamut from Eddie and the Cruisers, That Thing You Do!, and The Commitments to more independent fare like Garage Days and Still Crazy.
It’s that latter category that seems to hold more dramatic potential, with usually middle aged men trying to recapture youthful glory and musical inspiration while navigating old grudges, new outlooks, and their now “normal, straight” lives.
That’s the premise of The Incoherents, a new film which members of the titular on-the-verge-of-breaking ‘90s New York alt-rock band attempt to reunite for another run at fame and fortune. That is, 25 years after their lead singer/rhythm guitarist Bruce (Jeff Auer) abruptly broke them up on a whim, which in itself is the source of no little resentment.
Now a married father of two and working a stifling job as a paralegal in an office, he rounds up his former bandmates. There’s brothers Tyler (Casey Clark), a drummer in vacuous wedding band, and bassist Keith (Walter Hoffman), a civil servant committed to his girlfriend and vegan lifestyle; and lead guitarist Jimmy (Alex Emanuel).
Jimmy still has a toe in the biz as the owner of a downtown dive bar/live music venue, but his instrument is hung up untouched in the back room (though Bruce says he’ll play lead in the new band incarnation). Bruce’s wife Amy (Kate Arrington) is supportive – she was an original fan, after all – but also wants to pursue her own dreams. Plus there’s those to tykes to take care of, and babysitting costs $80 a night.
“It’s not an original idea, no!” Auer, who also wrote the film, laughs about the film’s premise. “The two things I was trying to bring to it differently was here was a guy in this mundane job with stability, but it’s crushing his soul. I also wanted to explore a marriage that was struggling. And with those two twists, it could be something different.” He was also inspired by the more recent real-life reunions of '90s alt rock bands like Soundgarden, the Pixies, Pavement, and the Replacements.
Directed by Jared Barel, The Incoherents was originally filmed as a standalone short movie before being re-shot into this full-length feature. The soundtrack features seven original songs written by Auer and Emanuel (though they wrote a total of 25!) in a ‘90s alt-rock style with titles like “Pigs,” “Here Comes the Bitter,” “Cosmopolitan Sheen,” “Irrational Devotion,” and “More than a Trend.”
“Alex had played in bands for many years, and he was part of the downtown New York rock scene from the ‘80s to the 2000s before he put it aside to focus on acting full time. For me, it was the most fun part of the whole process,” Auer says. He would text Emanuel lyrics, Emanuel would make a demo with the music, then the pair would grab a few beers and put Auer’s vocals on in the studio.
And through Emanuel’s real-life music connections, the pair were able to get guitarist Sean Eden (Luna) and drummer Kevin March (Guided by Voices) to play on the songs. “I had their records and seen them live. and to watch them just show up in the studio…I mean, I’m not a musician, I was faking the whole thing! But this was exciting since I was such an indie rock guy from the ‘90s.”
One real-life ‘90s musician who appears on-screen in a bit part is the Spin Doctors’ lead vocalist Chris Barron. He runs into frenemy Jimmy outside a small club where Barron has just played. Jimmy asks dismissively if Barron is still singing “Little Princes” (a dismissive melding of the real-life Spin Doctors hits “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes”). Barron – after spouting off high streaming figures for his tunes, they slyly asks if Jimmy will play the Incoherents’ “big hit.” Which of course, they never had.
The connection came when of the film’s co-producers – who had gone to high school with members of the Spin Doctors and fellow ‘90s jam band Blues Traveler – asked Barron to make the cameo.
To further blur fact and fiction, the real-life Emanuel tried out to be the Spin Doctors’ bassist in the early ‘90s but did not get the gig, partially because the jam band scene wasn’t really his cup of tea (or pint of lager…).
The Incoherents is very much a New York movie, though Auer says the city didn’t really nurture an alt-rock scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s like Los Angeles or Seattle. “I was into Archers of Loaf and Pavement and Afghan Whigs and Built to Spill, and they were from all over the country, but they all came to play in New York where I saw them,” he says. “It wasn’t until the 2000s with the Strokes and Interpol and TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs arose did it feel like a New York scene was really happening.”
The film is full of some rich, great small parts. Vincent Lamberti as their old school new manager; Annette O’Toole as the seen-it-all rehearsal space owner; Margaret Ann Florence as a younger music blogger; Robert G. McKay as Bruce’s work happy boss; and Amy Carlson as a veteran booking agent who ultimately delivers some harsh truths on the night of the band’s greatest performance triumph. Even after they deliver a fiery performance and overcome condescension from much younger groups during a Battle of the Bands whose prize is a coveted slot at the real-life Governors Ball concert.
After quizzing them about their social media presence and fan engagement activities (not surprisingly, the Incoherents have none), she sets things straight about how things are in 2020.
“Rock and roll is not the cultural force it used to be,” she tells the four forty-pushing-fifty something players and their manager. “It’s a niche now. And the kind of music you play is a niche within a niche.”
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And that is a truism at the heart of the movie, but also says a lot about how rock as a genre has been replaced by pop and hip hop in the national consciousness. Auer, who just turned 50, notes that his own nearly 14-year-old son listens mostly to the latter.
“It’s also a question we asked ourselves about who was going to watch this movie, a niche of people who are interested in ‘90s alt rock. And rock’s [power] as a cultural force is shrinking,” he says.
“Remember when a big album came out from like U2 or Guns ‘n Roses and there was weeks of anticipation and build up and everybody would go get it, and it would sell a million copies in the first week?” Auer says. “It’s not like that anymore. For the band the Incoherents, it’s like ‘You can keep doing this, but your time has passed.’ But Steven Van Zant said in an interview that maybe rock today is where it’s supposed to be. It started as a fringe, got huge, and now it’s fringe again. Rock already had its moment.”
The Incoherents is now streaming on multiple platforms and VOD services. Visit TheIncoherents.com for more information.