October 3, 2020 Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag (Documentary Review)
In a world where we are instantly condemned (or applauded) for our political views, can you even fathom the trials and tribulations of traveling the world as a member of an outspoken political band? With over 25 years beneath their collective studded belt, Anti-Flag has been doing just that and they tell their story, thus far, in Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag. The documentary is presented by Alternative Press and premieres on Veeps.com on Saturday, October 3, 2020, thanks to TurnStyle Films.
Directed by Jon Nix (The Naked Zinester documentary short 2013, Signals Midwest: We Drive Forever Like It’s Nothing short 2018), Beyond Barricades focuses on Anti-Flag, the activist Punk Rock band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who have been making “intelligent, driven, angry, and aware” music for edging on three decades. With the help of some friends, the band explores the philosophical ideologies that brought them together, their formation, career and personal highs and lows, as well as the varying political climates that they have traversed throughout their time as a force for change.
At 87 minutes, Beyond Barricades is obviously geared toward someone who is already a fan of Anti-Flag. And though it is a documentary aimed at fans, it’s not all childhood photographs and early concert clips. Instead, Director Nix and Anti-Flag choose to focus on the band’s activism and push for change, and the ever-changing landscape in which they’ve managed to keep afloat. In personal moments they share events in their early childhoods that shaped some of these views, situations that have reinforced their beliefs, and what they have sacrificed for their art.
But first, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello introduces “the hardest working band in show business” who have been on the road “for 20 years.” With the perfect voice and personality for framing his friends’ biography, the amiable Morello gives background on each of the four men in Anti-Flag: Drummer Pat Thetic, who is always on the front lines of political activism; Guitarist Chris Head, the strong, silent type; fiery Vocalist/Bassist Chris “#2” Barker with his larger than life presence; and Vocalist/Guitarist Justin Sane, “the heart and soul of the band.” (Although, if you don’t already know this information, we question why you’re viewing an Anti-Flag documentary?)
Throughout the film, many of the bands’ friends and contemporaries provide anecdotes, though Nix spins his story in a unique way. Instead of simply discussing their experiences with Anti-Flag, each of the guests is allowed to share some of their own story to craft a narrative that displays the similarities from one artist to another, and the communal influences found among many Punk Rock bands. Besides Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman, Prophets of Rage), who appears the most, we hear from the likes of Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, Singer-Songwriter Billy Bragg, Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and Bad Religion), Chris Cresswell (The Flatliners, Hot Water Music), Greg Barnett and Tom May of The Menzingers, as well as a specially curated group of fans that span a myriad of nationalities and backgrounds.
And yes, most of their friends are in social activism-inclined bands. Which is fitting, as unlike many who preach involvement and change from their comfortable sofas, the members of Anti-Flag are quick to take to the streets. We get to witness the quartet wandering through a French candlelight vigil in honor of the Paris attacks of November 2015, attending an anti-Trump rally on “the morning of the apocalypse” in January 2017, and taking part in a “No Wall, No Ban” protest in Houston. Similarly, they discuss a police-led protest of one of their gigs with Rage Against the Machine in Philadelphia, and the aftermath of September 11th and how it nearly spelled the end of Anti-Flag’s career.
As with any career, however, it’s not all protest marches and sing-alongs. There are some deeply personal moments shared, particularly with Chris #2, and even a short visit with Justin’s parents (in which the frontman wears a pro-feminism t-shirt that we love!). In this, we are given an intimate look into the hearts of the men in Anti-Flag, into their backgrounds, as well as the events that have shaped them and made them the men they are today. And this approach carries over into the candid details given to the band’s story, including their hesitation at taking on Chris #2, how Pat gifted the bassist the name “#2”, and the trouble with Cock (Jamie Towns).
Then there are the less amusing moments, like a potentially dangerous trip to Zaxidfest in Ukraine amid turmoil in the region, and the fallout after 9-11 and what it meant to be a band called “Anti-Flag” when Americans were turning toward a rampant nationalism. With their albums taken off shelves and their merchandise removed from Hot Topic, the band was uncertain if they would be able to overcome an unexpected and tragic hurdle. Similarly, there’s a seriousness to their discussion of why they eventually signed with a major label, what momentum that added to their cause, and how, as Pat notes, they “made a deal with the Devil, took his gold, and then told him to fuck off!” This flows into that dreaded discussion of the bane of every Punk’s integrity: selling out.
All of this is coupled with talk of their albums—1996’s Die For the Government, 1999’s A New Kind of Army, 2002’s Mobilize, 2006’s For Blood and Empire, and 2015’s American Spring, in particular—along with some behind-the-scenes shots at the “Brandenburg Gate” video shoot, a mini-tour of Justin’s parents’ Pennsylvania home, and Chris Head making nature-based art at home. If this is all somehow not enough, toss in some talk of 1984’s Another State of Mind, MC Hammer, liberation theology, East Coast Punk vs. West Coast Punk, Fat Wreck Chords, NWA, Rock Against Bush, Punk Voter, a disheartening flood, and, of course, hockey.
But above all else, Beyond Barricades is the story of how four musicians from Pittsburgh managed to find one another, create art with purpose, and deliver that music to a global audience in hopes of provoking thought and inspiring change while fighting for human rights, promoting empathy over apathy, and treating cynicism with optimism. There are battles won and battles lost, but also that burst of positivity that reminds us that even the smallest of change is still change. And if there are haters, well, the blatantly honest Morello notes, “If you’re making art that everyone can agree on, it’s probably very shitty art.”
An intelligent and fun Punk Rock documentary, Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag is worth checking out. For the above, Cryptic Rock gives the documentary 4.5 of 5 stars.