In the documentary “Don’t Go Gentle,” first-time director Mark Archer zeroes in on what makes the British band Idles tick: Its ability to make rage and vulnerability feel compatible, its insistence that blast-furnace rock ‘n’ roll can also be compassionate and consoling, and that earnestness and humor – the more self-deprecating the better – can co-exist.
There is nothing abstract about the band’s music. It’s as direct as a fist -- or an embrace. In a key scene, singer Joe Talbot –- in mid-concert lather with sweat pouring down his face – wraps his arms around one Danny Nedelko, the namesake of one of the band’s most potent songs. Here stands the flesh-and-blood incarnation of a song that is both a protest and a celebration. At a time when 9.5 million citizens – nearly 15 percent of the U.K. population -- born outside of the country are being demonized as Brexit-era pariahs, Idles champion empathy.
“My blood brother is an immigrant/A beautiful immigrant …My best friend is an alien/My best friend is a citizen,” Talbot roars with his arms wrapped around the very person he’s singing about.
The band members are grizzled outcasts themselves. Talbot and Adam Devonshire were college students who couldn’t really sing or play an instrument. They were DJ’s who aspired to write songs, and eventually forged a band that struggled for years to find its voice. An EP failed so dismally that the quintet didn’t even bother to play a show for nearly two years. Told repeatedly that “you’re not right” by promoters and other music-industry tastemakers, Idles caught fire when it turned “you’re not right” into a mission statement. It became “about being yourself and not being swayed by what others think,” Talbot says.
The music turned self-reflection into wide-screen catharsis.
The band excavated a deep well of feeling by tossing off the shackles of perfection. Songs began pouring out that addressed deeply personal issues – depression, death, anxiety, addiction – with blunt frankness. The music turned self-reflection into wide-screen catharsis.
Idles built a following by turning its concerts into raucous, community events – as much mass therapy as musical experiences. The band members bound about the stage and into the audience with gleeful abandon: Talbot lurching and swaying as if on the deck of a storm-swept pirate ship; Devonshire and guitarist Lee Kiernan pogoing; guitarist Mark Bowen prancing in his underwear like an understudy of Parliament-Funkadelic’s diaper-wearing Garry Shider. And then there’s drummer Jon Beavis, who keeps the band locked down and moving forward even as it threatens to blow apart at any minute.
The band’s 2017 debut album, “Brutalism,” addressed a spectrum of personal and political challenges, from the death of family members (both Talbot and Devonshire were mourning the loss of a parent) to “White Privilege.” A community of fans based in the band’s hometown of Bristol arose. AF Gang, “a safe space to be who you are,” mirrored the band’s songs and rose up to represent the part of England that Brexit aimed to bury. The band’s interaction with this community animates its songs and gives “Don’t Go Gentle” its central theme.
With its second album, the 2018 release “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” Idles transformed from a club act into something bigger, culminating in a series of festival appearances in the summer of 2019.
If there’s a criticism of Idles, it’s that its songs sometimes border on preachiness. But in championing the underdog, Talbot makes no apologies for being direct. “Talking about things that are broken,” he says, “…makes you feel part of a community of people that are all imperfect.”
And so the tears that Talbot sheds in the Glastonbury performance depicted in “Don’t Go Gentle” may strike some non-believers as maudlin. But the band’s earnestness, its undeniable sincerity, is also underlined by a potent mix of velocity and violence – echoing the exultant crash of the punk and post-punk eras. The most essential ingredient of all is the band’s exuberance, its sense of humor – at once crass, self-deprecating and chaotic. Every time I’ve seen Idles perform, its shared sense of mirth, its joy in being shamelessly in the moment undercuts any sense of preciousness.
At Lollapalooza in its breakthrough summer of 2019, the band demolished its closing song, an anti-fascist screed called “Rottweiler,” by attacking its instruments, then wading into the audience until it felt and looked like the band had expanded from five members to a few thousand. Rarely has a so-called protest band sounded like this much fun.