Monday, January 25, 2016

Sundance ’16: We Are X

You have to respect a documentary that comes with an audience warning. In the case of a new profile of the Japanese glam rock-heavy metal band X Japan, it is strobe effects. However, the band has collectively experienced far graver threats to their lives and well-being. Stephen Kijak profiles the immensely popular but deeply scarred group in We Are X (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

X’s androgynously Byronic frontman and drummer Yoshiki was always the member most at risk. When he was a sickly child, doctors gave him a minimal chance of living into adulthood, yet here he is. In this case, “here” means in considerable pain. Yoshiki never had a robust constitution, so his take-no-prisoners performance style often left him in a state of complete collapse. After years of stadium-style drumming turned up to eleven, he now must wear a neck brace throughout all X Japan concerts. Still, he is walking and breathing.

The same cannot be said of lead guitarist Hide, who died from an apparent suicide. Viewers might not be familiar with X Japan, but they have probably heard of the rash of copycat fan suicides that followed his death. This is that band. However, their most dramatic near tragedy had an especially Japanese flavor. Unbeknownst to the rest of X Japan, their vocalist Toshi fell under the sway of a mind-controlling cult. It was no joke. Hearing him relate his experiences is both creepy and cautionary.

Obviously, Yoshiki has a vested interest in maintaining his sensitive head-banger image, but Kijak gets him to open up somewhat, especially when discussing Hide’s sad demise. Kijak is a veteran music documentarian (the co-director of the first-rate Jaco) who draws on his experience to corral the deliberately out-there band. This time around, he incorporates some revealingly grueling concert footage (complete with strobe lights) and fully conveys a sense of the band as a social phenomenon in Japan.

There are enough tribulations and chaos in We Are X to fill a dozen music documentaries, but Kijak keeps it snappy while avoiding a gossipy tone. Recommended for fans and gawkers, We Are X screens again this Tuesday (1/26), Thursday (1/28), and Friday (1/29) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.