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Autoluminescent: The Rowland S. Howard Documentary

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The last few years have formed a tiny goldmine of music documentaries for fringe music fans, ranging from the previously covered “Bastard Art” to the harrowing Wild Man Fisher film, “Derailroaded” to the Faces-of-Death-trip of the Johnny Thunders documentary, “Born to Lose.” Somewhere in the middle was the Jeffrey Lee Pierce centered work, “Ghost on the Highway” and more recently, is “Autoluminescent,” about the life and work of guitarist, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Rowland S. Howard.

The figure of Rowland was and forever is, unlike any, in music. The slight, ethereal looking figure, with a shock of dark hair and a cigarette permanently attached to his fingers, approached guitar like a musical whirlwind, sounding almost devoid of any proper musical forefathers. He elevated the Boys Next Door and was the needed catalyst to take them from basic pop-rock to the infernal swamp-rock of The Birthday Party. (A fact that is acknowledged in the film by Nick Cave himself.)

“Autoluminescent” not only documents this, starting from Rowland’s first band, The Young Charlatans all the way to his work with Lydia Lunch, Crime & the City Solution, These Immortal Souls and his own solo career. The later produced two albums, 1999’s “Teenage Snuff Film” and “Pop Crimes,” made ten years later as Howard was dying from liver cancer. What his solo career may have lacked in quantity it is epic in its brilliance. Like a true rock & roll alchemist, the man was able to take a schmaltzy song like “She Cried” (made famous by Jay & the Americans) and make it layered and real.

One of my biggest personal pet peeves with music documentaries is often the lack of actual music. Sometimes it is a legal issue, which was the case for both “Ghost on the Highway” and the Runaways film, “Edgeplay.” That is one thing, but then there are films where they just tease you with scraps, despite the fact that the whole reason you are watching is inadvertently tied to the music itself. Thankfully, that is not a huge issue here, as the balance between the music, interviews and atmospherically poetic interludes is well thought out. (Of course, I wouldn’t have minded even more music, but if it was up to me, all good music documentaries would be 8 hours long. With Rowland S. Howard, we’re talking “Berlin Alexanderplatz” lengths.)

Another thing that is obscenely beautiful about “Autoluminscent” is the way that it is weaved together, merging more traditional documentary elements, like interviews and archival footage, along with the pseudo-cinematic interstitial scenes of smoke and swampy filigree, as Rowland off screen reads narrative bits. The brilliance about this, as well as the marked prominence of the music, is that with artists, the only purely honest truths you are going to get is the art. With anyone, artists and laymen alike, you could talk to eighty different people that know you, but each one of them will get something wrong. It’s rarely an intentional dishonesty but everyone, at one point or time, ends up a victim of round robin.

That said, there are some great interviews here, featuring a veritable who’s who of cool, alternative artists, including Greg Perano from Hunters & Collectors, filmmaker Wim Wenders (whose film “Wings of Desire” featured both Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), longtime collaborator, member of These Immortal Souls and ex-romantic partner Genevieve McGuckin,  Honeymoon in Red collaborator and ex-paramour Lydia Lunch, Birthday Party band mates Cave and Mick Harvey, Barry Adamson and more. There’s also documentary-stalwart Henry Rollins, whom coincidentally appears in about 95% of the documentaries I have seen in my entire lifetime. The most effective out of the great lot, however, is McGuckin and Rowland himself. It is those interviews that reveal Rowland the most as both layered and flawed (as are we all) human and creative force of nature.

“Autoluminscent” will break your heart and though I knew it was an inevitable heartbreak because Rowland S. Howard died only a scant three years ago, the pain and loss are tangible by the end. It doesn’t revel in Rowland’s sickness and keeps an outright respectable distance while still acknowledging the various factors that hindered the man. Anyone dying at 50 is sad but when it is someone as beautiful and brilliant as this man, it just feels like the whole damned world was robbed.

Despite the sadness of it all, at the end of the day what matters is the work and Rowland S. Howard left behind a discography that is timeless, textured and striking. “Autoluminescent” is a fitting film document of a musician that should still be here.

Posted by Heather Drain
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