Punk’s not dead, but it is about to get murdered. At least that’s the premise of New Wave anti-biopic “The Icarus Line Must Die,” directed by Michael Grodner in his feature debut.
The story follows Joe Cardamone, infamous frontman of post-hardcore band The Icarus Line, in a black-and-white Jim Jarmusch-esque light thriller, as he navigates Los Angeles, haunted by an anonymous texter threatening to kill him. Based on Cardamone’s real life as a musician and producer, the film illuminates the lives of the artists who’ve been slogging in the clubs, trying to do the impossible — get signed to a major label — even as they lament that they need the majors in the first place. It’s an age-old story about the corruptibility of art under capitalism.
What sets Grodner’s story apart is its intense focus on specific people in the scene who are emblematic of a way of living and surviving in Los Angeles that’s slowly dying, whether from insane housing prices or the tendency of artists to sell out first and make the art later, the exact opposite attitude of the city’s earlier punk pioneers.
Cardamone is constantly bemoaning the lousy music he must produce to make a living, culminating in his “firing” one band of young trustafarian kids who demand some bubbly water while Cardamone sneers. You get the sense scenes like this were pieced together from actual incidents in his studio, and though Cardamone could be seen as the elitist here — like that other stereotype of the know-it-all record store snob — it’s easy to be squarely in Cardamone’s camp when rich kids “bleeding money out their a–holes” are the villains.
Amid these encounters with poseurs, we meet Cardamone’s friends, folks like Keith Morris, Ariel Pink and Annie Hardy, the latter providing the most comic relief, though it’s not quite clear if Hardy is playing a caricature of herself or simply herself. This musician with an otherworldly-good voice just happens to have a real-life admiration for Trump-associated provocateurs like Kanye West and Candace Owens, complicating her character’s presence as a paranoid obsessive espousing on what amounts to lizard-people conspiracies. Still, Cardamone wants to work with her, because she’s just that good, and these are the kinds of whacked-out people you meet every day in this city, not just the clean-cut rich kids with a spiffy new Orange amp.
Meanwhile, Cardamone’s getting those anonymous text messages. He’s a little freaked, but the majority of that anxiety is represented in dreams, where a silhouetted figure stalks him in wide-open, sun-drenched locales, like the cement basin of the L.A. River.
These scenes are saturated to the maximum, employing simple scrubbing video effects to give a jerky feeling to Cardamone’s movement, like he’s been run through the Boomerang app. It’s just enough visual separation from dream life and real life to work without getting too flashy. But, honestly, real life is already surreal enough.
The appearance of Icarus bass player Alvin DeGuzman in his chemotherapy days was a bit of a shock. DeGuzman passed in October 2017 after a short battle with cancer, and here we see Cardamone shooting the breeze with his old bandmate, listening intently as DeGuzman talks casually about his treatments with the detached air of someone who’s seen some stuff.
Through Cardamone’s eyes, DeGuzman’s treatments and deterioration add a tragic layer to the story, that of an artist not wanting to forget or to be forgotten, as the new, young acts begin taking over the city, delivering crowd-pleasing anthems. How long can a band thriving on punk ethos really survive in a pro-capitalist culture? When DeGuzman inevitably leaves this Earth, can and will the band carry on? And if they do, why? As you grow older, is your long-term goal still that label deal, or does it have to change?
Cardamone, in the film, is gonna keep on ticking for as long as he can. We get a full-bodied, electric live performance of Icarus, but quick looks at the audience reveal not everyone gets the appeal of such angular rock in a world of so much tidy music, something I’m not sure Grodner knew he was conveying. But the band feels somehow out of place, though just as chaotic and enigmatic as ever; there is, ever present, the sense that Cardamone’s time is up.
For Angeleno viewers, Eastside landmarks like Future Music, Permanent Records and the Echo get a beat or mention in the movie, and many will remember when even those spots felt new, supplanting the even older landmarks, many of which are defunct in the same way I suppose these will be eventually. (Oh god, that’s depressing.)
But if there are any takeaways from Grodner’s film, it’s that we are all powerless to stop the passage of time, and, as Future Music owner Jack Waterson says, “Be truly loved or truly hated, man, cuz anything in the middle is garbage.” I think you’ll truly love or truly hate this film, but I’m firmly in the “love” camp for this remarkable Los Angeles time capsule.