A clear assessment of the internal problems of the titular band comes early in “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.” The band’s original manager, Roger Perry, explains that “had Fishbone been less of a democracy, they might have been a more successful band. But had they been less of a democracy, they wouldn’t have been Fishbone.”
Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler’s documentary is most compelling when it probes the core of this democracy. Fishbone is built around two wildly divergent personalities: eccentric front man Angelo Moore and band founder and bassist Norwood Fisher, who has kept the ship afloat in its various incarnations for three decades.
The film fudges it here and there with ambitious but cursory attempts at a social history of black Los Angeles and a slightly deceptive take on the 1980s–90s music scene, especially the Hollywood punk scene, and Fishbone’s place therein.
Angelo, whom Norwood aptly deems a “conflicted brother,” is naturally the heart of this movie. He has always been the firestarter for Fishbone. Angelo grows visibly older (but not necessarily wiser) over the course of “Everyday Sunshine,” his boyish grin eventually turning into something like a grimace.
The film’s funniest sequence chronicles how Angelo became infatuated with the Theremin in 1995, changing his name for a time to Dr. Mad Vibe and pushing the band relentlessly to feature the instrument on every single song. Down-to-earth Norwood was immensely frustrated.
Angelo is a kind of Peter Pan figure, always ready to fly off on a new adventure but ill-equipped to handle the real world, which includes his teenage daughter and his business dealings. On the road, he says he turns on the “numb knob” to protect himself from painful realities.
The singer finally has to return to his childhood home in Woodland Hills, his finances in complete disarray, to try living again with his stalwart and conservative mother.
Fishbone then and now offers quite a contrast: in its heyday, the band’s spastic yet precise stage show was unsurpassable; today, the band soldiers on with two original members (yes, Angelo and an increasingly grim Norwood) and often looks exhausted as it tries to summon up its original mojo for ever-dwindling audiences.
The film’s best scenes feature Angelo and Norwood ruminating on their missed opportunities. The band was left in the dust by contemporaries like No Doubt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane’s Addiction, never achieving that level of commercial success.
As Angelo puts it, Fishbone wound up “famous but not rich,” a predicament that forces Angelo and Norwood into endless difficult conversations on where the band can possibly head next and how the two can possibly keep working together without driving each other insane.
The origins of the band are circa 1979 in the San Fernando Valley, where most of the band members were being bussed from South Central for school.
Anderson and Metzler use this as an opportunity to insert an animated sequence on black migration into Los Angeles and how the city became segregated, then tried unsuccessfully to desegregate itself. This could have offered a new perspective on where this band is coming from, but this history lesson gets short shrift in a documentary that winds up on the long side—thanks to too much information on the band’s ups-and-downs and music industry politics.
The year-by-year, album-by-album approach the filmmakers sometimes slip into does not work that well when the subject is a band never known for its recordings. It was always about Fishbone’s live show, more examples of which the film could have featured. Why not let the band’s performances do more speaking for themselves?
Sequences on the advent of crack and the 1992 riots—and how these developments affected the band members and their music—similarly feel rushed. As well, “Everyday Sunshine” never gets into where Los Angeles is at today and how Fishbone’s members feel about the city now.
The directors mean to say that Fishbone’s music reflects the band members’ experiences as young black men in Los Angeles from the late 1970s until now, but they do not offer much hard evidence to back up their assertion. For instance, the film highlights lyrics to only one of Fishbone’s songs, “Subliminal Fascism.”
Nevertheless, Anderson and Metzler have assembled a formidable lineup of highly articulate talking heads to make the case for Fishbone’s significance: Ice-T, Perry Farrell, George Clinton, Branford Marsalis, Mike Watt, Les Claypool, Keith Morris, Questlove, Tim Robbins, and more.
Those musicians who perhaps benefitted the most from Fishbone’s stylistic pioneering—namely, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers—offer the most penetrating commentary and generous praise.
“Everyday Sunshine” may give the impression that Fishbone was the only black rock band of its time, but this would be to ignore two notable contemporaries, Washington, D.C.’s Bad Brains and New York’s Living Colour (although Living Colour’s Vernon Reid is one of the film’s interviewees).
The Hollywood punk scene comes off as more homogeneous in “Everyday Sunshine” than it was in actuality. Although it was certainly dominated by whites and included very few blacks, there were many high-profile, non-white musicians involved in the scene, from Tito Larriva (briefly seen in the film) to Tony Kanal, and it was also a breeding ground for powerful women artists, from Exene Cervenka to Ms. Stefani.
An Pale Griot Distribution release.
Directed and produced by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler.
Cinematography and editing, Jeff Springer.
Running time: 107 minutes.