Without a doubt, “Skum Rocks!” is not the typical Hollywood success story. Directed by Clay Westervelt and narrated by Alice Cooper, this rockumentary examines SKUM, a real-life band that, when faced with success, decided to quit.
“That’s what this film is about: the abject fear of not failing,” SKUM co-founder Hart Baur said when reached by telephone for an interview. “The whole name of the band was a play on the fact that we couldn’t play. It was self-degradation.”
In spite of the band’s original fears, “Skum Rocks!” has been doing well on the festival circuit, making its Dance with Films debut last week in Hollywood. In the 1980’s, SKUM had a serious following on the East Coast, even though the band didn’t know how to play their instruments.
Baur said the band eventually travelled to Los Angeles, playing a gig at what he called a non-descript venue.
“That wasn’t even a real show; it was us getting up and doing a couple of songs. [SKUM] was just about to hit when everything imploded,” he explained. “Just when we started getting cognizant of the fact that we could do something with this, by that time everything was well overblown. It was like we were chasing cars with no intention of catching a car. But it was fun being in the street, it was fun playing in traffic.”
Lost master tapes and SKUM on film
Joining Baur on the call, director Clay Westervelt said he grew up in Iowa and hadn’t heard of SKUM until he was in graduate school at USC.
“Hart actually got in touch with me based on another film I had made called ‘Popatopolis,’ which is about a B-movie director who was kind of getting well-known,” Westervelt said. “He was expected to be the next Roger Corman. He ended up becoming better-known for doing late-night Cinemax movies like ‘The Devil Wears Nada.’ I followed him around while he tried to make a motion picture in 3 days.”
Baur points out that though the band members comes across as dumb and uneducated, the opposite actually is true: “We really understood that fact that if you signed a record contract, especially back in the 80s, you owned nothing. You got a bonus, but that bonus was against earned income.”
SKUM did record some tracks in the hopes of producing their own album, but the band broke up in 1990 and the master tapes were lost. “It was all kind of done and over. Then, about 5 years ago, this guy Steve Martindale called me. He had found the box in his bathroom. It turned out he had the master tapes the entire time,” he said.
Disgruntled girlfriends and celebrities
SKUM represented a high degree of artistic freedom, especially to creative folks laboring for other people.
“A lot of celebrities liked us; they gravitated towards us because of the freedom that we had. We could do what we wanted; we didn’t have to worry about a record label saying ‘You have to do this song. You have to wear these outfits or you have to go here,'” Baur said. “We were always about bringing the fan onstage, backstage with us. It was all interactive.”
Though Baur said there was no “Yoko Ono” involved in the breakup of the band, there had been a “Disgruntled Girlfriend” chapter in “Skum Rocks!” that didn’t make the final cut.
“But hopefully, we’ll get a TV show and we can bring these girls on and show their stories. The girls were actively involved and everything, but they were in way over their heads,” he said. “We had one girl who moved to Miami, and the [band member] who invited her to move to Miami didn’t think she would actually show up.”