This past weekend, a major music documentary was shown here in Milwaukee at the classic atmospheric theater, the Avalon Theater in the Bay View neighborhood. The documentary covers the proto-punk through punk to pop to post-punk era in the Milwaukee music scene…essentially the early 1970s thru mid-1980s. The Avalon had three showings in their large theater and all three sold out. Simply incredible for a first showing of a film with a very focused subject. Who should see the film? Well absolutely everyone who was active in that scene as a musician or fan. Everyone who is interested in the history of music from that period. And everyone who knows someone from the scene but who wasn’t here during the period.
Now before we dig in further, the documentary is named after a late single by The Haskels, one of the signature groups of the period. If you haven’t heard the tune before or missed our August 14th Monday Music feature that links to it…click here and give it a spin!
Taking The City By Storm was directed by Doug LaValliere and produced by Judy Simonds and Clancy Carroll, all three of whom were smack dab in the middle of the music and the era. Who better to tell the story and they did a very very thorough job, taking ten years to assemble old photographs, old concert posters, old video (well film), and vintage audio recordings and assembling them into an amazingly cohesive and comprehensive documentary! And then on top of that, they collected a number of amazing interviews with musicians and observers of the scene and wove them into the fabric of the story. So if you think you can’t have a documentary without talking heads, you won’t be disappointed! LOL!
But seriously, at just about two hours in playing time, you feel you got enough of the history and essence of Milwaukee’s alternative music scene. And how Doug managed to meld all of those disparate media items and got them to sound clear and getting those old videos to look sharp and clear is beyond me…but they all work at modern levels without losing or giving up the vintage sense of place and time.
Now, I won’t go into every segment but if you are looking for your favorite 1980s band, read the movie poster above, and if they are listed they get some major screen time. Of course the major movers get a bit more acknowledgement…like Death (the godfathers of the scene who exploded on the scene in the early 1970s and imploded as suddenly), to In A Hot Coma, The Haskels, Oil Tasters, Die Kreuzen, Valiants, Shivvers, and Violent Femmes. And they interviewed the owners of Zak’s and The Starship, the two major venues that hosted the bands in the film. It was a special treat to see Starship owner, the late Kenny Baldwin talk about the scene and his club. And yes, Jerry Grabowski or Jerome Brish or Presley Haskel, however you knew him through the years and whether you found him an ally or a roadblock, is given the screen time he does in fact deserve.
I knew a lot of the people whose music was showcased here. I knew some of the club owners as well. It was just flat out awesome to hear these bands and hear their takes on that time and place. So thank you to LaValliere, Simonds, and Carroll for producing this epic bit of Milwaukee musical history. It is worth every moment you invested in it!
ICYMI: Taking The City By Storm has a number of film festivals to traverse but sometime in 2024 it should be available on DVD and streaming services. I will be standing in line to get it the moment its release is announced. Until then you will have to settle for the official trailer for the film…and you can find that here!
And full disclosure: I was the original bass player in Death and was mentioned as a bass player in another band that I spent my 15 minutes with. But when most of this was going down, I was no longer a performer. Instead I owned a record store, On Broadway Plays at 630 N Broadway in downtown Milwaukee and sold the singles that many of these groups released!