Last year there was an unfortunate collision of interests for instrumental music fans: two documentaries on The Ventures, each seeking crowdfunding at the same time. Stars on Guitars appeared to have suffered more from that conflict, raising considerably less than Walk Don't Run with roughly a third as many donors. However, this clearly didn't shake the team for Stars on Guitars, as their film readies for release while Walk Don't Run appears to be looking at 2021 at the earliest. I certainly didn't expect to see this film so soon, but the result feels quite full, fun, and perhaps more exciting for surf music fans than they might expect!
Of the two documentaries, I thought the teaser videos revealed in their crowdfunding campaigns were a little more in favor of Walk Don't Run as far as professional look and feel. The final product here does have an indie feel to it, but I think it comes together than their promo materials would have you believe, and is especially fine considering the way it was cut together. Structurally, this film is loose without feeling aimless. It balances out history with modern-day relevance and education, and it does this by intercutting a vast scrapbook of Ventures archival interviews with modern commentary from other musicians, and stitching them together with goofy cartoons. I think it works well, and keeps any "part" of the movie from dragging because it doesn't really feel like there are specific parts.
The unmentioned key part here is that the director is Don Wilson's daughter Staci Layne Wilson. Though at no point does she lend voiceover or reveal herself, there are two ways that her influence is particularly noticeable: it's clearly coming from a place of love, not skimping whatsoever on history or achievement but certainly not forgetting to note the character of the members of the Ventures. I personally think the film could do without the bit of their being inducted to the worthless institution that is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (I mean, they had to petition to be inducted! How were they not a shoo-in?), but I suspect she knew how important it was to them. The other influence is a femme-heavy perspective. Her grandmother Josie Wilson is given a large amount of credit for her managing the band and the fan club -- attention which I think is both deserved and interesting. There are generally more female musicians and interviewees than you tend to see in rock doc, particularly about a bunch of men, but nobody feels out of place and their perspective is fun and interesting -- particularly the commentary from women on the girls on Ventures album covers.
Surf fans, there's a lot here for us. Sure, there's plenty of guitarists from big ol' chart-toppin' rock groups that I'll let other reviews talk about, and they give the expected lip service. In fact there's a few really surprising gets like composer Lalo Schiffrin! For a director doing her first documentary, there's no sense that she had limited reach. But you've also got The Neptunas, The Surfragettes, The Whys, Mel Bergman, Danny Amis, Deke Dickerson (could it be legit without him?), and more put right alongside them. PLUS the background music is frequently surf musicians playing noticeably surf music (instead of something more Ventures-styled) like 9th Wave and Phantom Surfers. Undoubtedly there's going to be a few eyebrows raised here and there: surf music is discussed, and somebody (not one of the Ventures) seems to attribute the entire Southern California surf craze to the Ventures. I've heard a lot of theories about the birth of surf music, but not that one. However, it's just an interviewee saying that, it's not really pushed by the narrative of the doc.
In addition to some fun history and cool trivia, there's some technical talk, both in terms of their playing style and for the effects the band used. These are explained assuming you have basically zero background as a musician. A musician might snooze through those, but I appreciated it, and it keeps the film from being too niche. I loved the mention of weird effects, like talkbox use, saxophone through a Leslie cabinet, etc.
I'm not a Ventures historian, but I know that there's a pretty distinct cutoff for The Ventures that we really think of as The Ventures. I would never say that Ventures were all about Nokie, but when Nokie left they became a much shlockier thing (no offense to Louisiana native Gerry McGee). The film does a great job of hitting the high notes of the band's beginnings and early successes, but the handoff to Gerry and the modern incarnation is weirdly handled with quick mentions of personnel and a few jokes about the Disco album. The tone of the film is relentlessly positive, so it's no surprise it doesn't dig into these things, but it's weird seeing Don Wilson talk about The Ventures from the outside when talking about the Ventures today.
Stars on Guitars is an easy recommend for fans of instrumental music, and a worthy tribute to a band with limitless relevance to rock & roll. I'd put in on the shortlist of essential surf music viewing alongside... Tales of Rat Fink? Riding Giants? Rumble? No, unlike those other movies, this is actually about an instrumental band. It is the shortlist.
I usually review albums, and I can usually give you a concrete release date, but films don't really work that way. For those of you in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor and check out the screening on February 12th. There will also be screenings in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, and they're reaching out to film festivals. Then hopefully you can stream it in 2021. I know, that's a while from now, but keep this on your radar and look out for an opportunity to see it in a theater. The best way to keep an eye out looks like their facebook page.