Revelation Film Festival 2017 Review: "Meal Tickets" is an unflinching look at punk rock
That Mat De Koning's documentary Meal Tickets, centering around obscure punk rock Perth band Screwtop Detonators was filmed over a period of 10 or so years is the best thing about it, but also the worst thing.
The best thing is that we're privy to a group of young, dumb, full-of-cum dreamers slowly acquiesce to being one of the millions who never got their big break; there's a raw poignancy to that, a unique quality which makes this 90 something minute documentary worth the price of a ticket. I was greatly reminded of one of the all-time great documentaries about a similar subject, Anvil.
But that this film had to found in the edit – more than 700 hours of footage had to be cut down to a bite-sized 90 minutes – means that certain parts of the film are scatterbrained and some of the more compelling stuff zooms by far too quickly. The first twenty minutes or so is so furiously paced as to be experimental; it comes across as twitchy, ill at ease -- very little plays out naturally.
There's also a real sense that De Koning is perilously close to his subjects, and so he may have had an obligation to handle the nastier group dynamics with kid gloves. A move that's totally at odds with a work as otherwise unvarnished as this. By no means do these things hinder the watchability of Meal Tickets. I just wanted more, and for nothing to be left on the table (or cutting room floor, as it were).
For example, there's a key moment when the band has a vicious falling out, and the details are kept vague – something about money, I guess – and the falling out itself is only a re-enactment. Then there's the fact that Screwtop Detonators had to part ways with their alarmingly straight-talking tough guy manager early on. Again, it's glossed over. De Koning's voiceover only postulates what may or may not have been the problem.
It's unfortunate, because that unflinching commitment to showing what life on the road as a punk band is really like suffuses every other scene in the film: From the crowds whose number you could count with one hand, to the crummy venues, the already garbage record deals that fall through without explanation, the terrible living conditions, and the touching fact that these young men are so clearly having the time of their lives.
Well, except for their one roadie, Will Stoker. He half-asses the job on the Screwtop Detonators' first tour because what he really wants is to be a musician. He's also clearly different from the others as far as temperament goes, and they don't care for him really, so he hauls ass in a hurry to make something of his own musical talents.
From there the film occasionally makes fascinating detours into what's going in the life of Will Stoker as he faces his own artistic dilemmas and demons. I found him to be fascinating. Here's a guy who's harbouring a lot of pain because he's unable to reconcile his desire for money with his desire to be an artist who's true to his vision; and his vision is inconsistent, strange, even sometimes downright off-putting – essentially one that can be packaged and sold for a good price so easily. Even his best friend, a fellow weirdo goth-ish artist, is exasperated at Will Stoker's mercurial and moody demeanour. Amusingly, as Screwtop Detonators' humble star falls, Will Stoker's rises. It's not so easy as that of course, but it's one of those rare, funny instances in the documentary that seems ripped straight from a good piece of fiction.
Although it almost seems like two different films by that point – one following a bunch of ordinary joes, and the other following an artiste – it's to De Koning's credit that he's collected all these scenes from the random, haphazard nature of years gone by and definitively made it about one, coherent thing: Besieged creatives trying to make an impossible go of making a life, whatever that might mean.