Fugazi’s formula for independence

Documentary explores punk legends
Photo courtesy of Dischord Records

The 1999 documentary Instrument follows the seminal Washington D.C. post-hardcore punk band Fugazi. Footage of the band collected over the years—from 1987 all the way up to 1998—comprise this film, including footage of Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye in his prior band Minor Threat. The film showcases the band’s ethos, approach to composition, and their profound ability to push the edges of punk music to its brink.

Fugazi performed their first show in September 1987 when the band only had three members. Another fixture in the D.C. punk scene, Guy Picciotto—who had fronted the band Rites of Spring—joined the lineup by the end of 1987. With two of the strongest forces of D.C.’s hardcore punk scene collaborating, it is no wonder that Fugazi soon quickly grew to be one of the most notorious hardcore punk bands in history.

Each member of the band brought a frenzied energy that expressed itself in fast, angry, punk rock. Their lyrics were often filled with running political commentary, and MacKaye and Picciotto alternated in translating their frustration into anguished, screaming vocals.

Far from a traditional documentary, Instrument aims to be a musical documentation, working to conjure a portrait of the musicians at work by combining sync-sound and 16mm film. The film begins with grainy footage of the band performing a mesmerizing seven-minute-long version of their track “Shut the Door.” Beads of sweat drip down the shirtless chests of the four young men as their sinewy arms act as cables that carry electrical energy from inside their bodies out to their instruments.

The film features footage of one of Fugazi’s most notorious performances, a wild rendition of their song “Glue Man” in what looks like a high school gym. As MacKaye builds his riff over the crashing of Brendan Canty’s drumming, Picciotto leaps over the drum kit and grabs onto the rim of the basketball hoop with one hand, mic in the other. In an adrenaline-fueled feat of both physical strength and agile maneuvering, Picciotto pulled his feet up through the basketball hoop. He hung upside down over Canty’s drums as he shrieked out the opening lines, writhing and flailing while occasionally knocking one of the cymbals with his head.

The documentary also includes an early interview of the band dating back to 1988 and conducted by an eighth-grader, aired on all-access cable. An endearingly young and baby-faced MacKaye explains the origins of the band’s name: “I was reading a book, a compilation of stories by Vietnam War veterans and came across the word [fugazi], which was a slang acronym for ‘Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In [into a body bag].’”

In the same interview, the eighth-grader asks about the political messages the band aims to spread. “For about 30 years you’ve had some ‘so-called protest music’ and not a lot has changed,” Picciotto said. “So I think we recognize the fact that if a band is gonna act politically, then it has to be more in line with what they actually do as a band as opposed to what they say they do.”

The band is arguably the most prominent punk band to have come from the D.C. scene in large part due to their strict stance on political activism, and the documentary aims to showcase the intertwined relationship between punk music and activism. Nearly every one of their shows were hosted to benefit some non-profit organization or another. The band donated all proceeds from their shows, performed at political rallies, and addressed key political issues directly in their lyrics as well as at their shows.

MacKaye asserts that owning your own record label is the first step in gaining creative freedom and independence as a band. Other strict rules Fugazi adheres to include charging only eight dollars per CD and five dollars at shows. The band does not sell merchandise or create music videos, as they represent capitalistic greed. In the words of MacKaye, “Never mind what you’re selling. It’s what you’re buying.”

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