Alternative music was serious business in the 1980s and ’90s. Fed up with not just stale, bombastic radio rock but hardcore punk’s stylistic blinders, underground bands splintered, creating a new ecosystem of subgenres. While acts like Big Black, Swans, and Ministry made use of the harsh sounds of industrial music, bands like Hüsker Dü, Embrace, and Squirrel Bait opened punk up to new melodic possibilities. Spurred by alt-rock’s newfound appreciation for hooks and sweet melodies, Chicago power poppers Material Issue inhabited a unique space in the Chicago music scene by eschewing punk aggression in favor of jaggedly melodious choruses in the vein of the Dictators, Big Star, and fellow Illinoisans Cheap Trick.
Although the band was a semi-sensation after the release of their first album, 1991’s International Pop Overthrow, and saw singles like “Diane” and “Valerie Loves Me” climb the college radio charts, their trajectory was cut short by middling sales, changing tastes, and the eventual suicide of frontman and mastermind Jim Ellison. Balin Schneider’s slender rockumentary Out of Time: The Material Issue Story, follows the band’s development from their early days to their tragic demise, making use of rock doc staples like collages of TV appearances, rare concert footage, home videos, alt-chic black-and-white photography reminiscent of Charles Peterson’s work, and of course, a gallery of talking heads, including Chicago music legend Steve Albini of the aforementioned Big Black, former 120 Minutes host Matt Pinfield, and surviving Material Issue members Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani.
The power trio blazed the trail for bands like Green Day and Superdrag to find success in the mid-’90s, and editor Cara Myers makes good use of the (often grainy) footage to evoke the atmosphere that pervaded the culture of the early ’90s. There are the obligatory mentions of grunge, Nirvana, and the Seattle scene, but a clip of Dennis Miller introducing the band on his show — bobbing his mulleted head while proclaiming, “The gals love them,” to an enthusiastic studio audience — feels more authentically of the time than rehashing the early-’90s alternative rock explosion for the umpteenth time. Out of Time wisely keeps the Seattle-adjacent talk to a minimum, putting the equally vibrant Chicago music scene at center stage. Even so, Schneider doesn’t interrogate the band’s place within that scene, which was often fraught with tensions and conflicting ambitions — and a band as eager to shoot for superstardom as Material Issue must have ruffled at least a few feathers.
The documentary’s title derives from the group’s status as “a band out of time,” as one of the interviewees so aptly puts it, their ’70s-inspired guitar pop seemingly at odds with both grunge’s metallic thrum and the shruggy lo-fi production values of their contemporaries like Liz Phair and Sebadoh. As is the case for most documentaries focused on not-as-famous-as-Nirvana alternative and indie groups — Silkworm’s Couldn’t You Wait, Slint’s Breadcrumb Trail, even Mudhoney’s I’m Now fits that bill — Out of Time doesn’t stray too far from the well-trodden indie documentary path, telling the story in a relatively straightforward, surprisingly conservative way. Sure, trying to impart actual history makes formal experimentation difficult, but it remains surprising that we’ve yet to see a lower-budget, after-the-fact documentary attempt to mirror its subject’s musical sensibilities.
It might be unfair to expect an exuberant, raucous take on the Material Issue story, given that their journey ended with their founder’s suicide, but it’s nonetheless unfortunate just how much time is devoted to Ellison’s passing, his untimely death looming over the entirety of the film’s final third. It’s an affecting, heartbreaking way to end things — on a purely dramatic level, his suicide happens to come at the end of a string of professional and personal misfortunes — that unfortunately grows numbing the longer it goes on, an especially moving segment from producer Mike Chapman notwithstanding. Things do end on a slightly uplifting note, as Ellison’s mother, who herself passed before the documentary was completed, touchingly reflects on her son’s enduring legacy, but the fact remains that, perhaps unavoidably, the film takes a remarkably dour turn from which it never really bounces back — unbefitting of the art the film’s subjects created.
Similarly, the film displays a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards binge drinking — Ellison’s wake took place at a bar which was swiftly relieved of its vodka reserves — even though it is speculated that excessive drinking might have been a factor in his death. It feels as if Schneider wants to have it both ways: hint at the dangers of substance abuse without harshing anyone’s vibe too much. Regardless, any potential enjoyment will ultimately come down to individual viewers’ familiarity with and affinity for the band’s music, or at least the scene that birthed them. Material Issue’s impeccably-recorded and wonderfully melodic pop songs seem like an easy sell on their own — especially in an era where terms like “careerist” or “sell-out” aren’t legacy-tarnishing jibes anymore — yet mainstream recognition has continued to elude them, as if they are doomed to remain a band out of time forever. The group still has its admirers; whether or not Out of Time will gain them any new ones is another question.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.