One of the fastest growing bands to come out of the truly fertile NYHC scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was Life of Agony. Their mixture of hardcore and metal riffs with a more melodic vocal style and lyrics that took on difficult subject matter on their debut album, River Runs Red, was groundbreaking for many, even as it was a dilution of something special to others. As the band progressed to more melodic presentations and aesthetics, they seemed poised to conquer the world right at the moment when alternative rock was becoming a bankable genre; then, their vocalist left the band. Now, almost 30 years since the release of their debut full length, the band not only has a new record, but also a documentary, called The Sound of Scars, exploring their turbulent background and experiences. It is a story of evolution, identity, discovery, trauma, and ultimately, hope.
Making a music documentary in which the subjects are also executive producers feels very often like a recipe for disaster. There have been quite a few films about musicians in recent memory that felt less like telling a true story and more like inflating egos or smoothing over rough edges. When I have seen these films, I have often felt dissatisfied, feeling like what I was seeing was more like a promotional press release than the story of the band, much like the bits of inspired propaganda that might accompany a band’s press photo and new record. In most cases, it has been easy for me to make these judgments when needed, because I had no investment in the subjects of these documentaries. I could see where it felt like things were too easy or not direct because I simply was not nostalgic or sentimental for the artists involved.
Not so with The Sound of Scars. Obviously, objectivity in reviewing films is a ridiculous idea. I am writing to give you my aesthetic opinion and whatever I write will inevitably be personal and you, the reader, have to decide if what I see resonates with you. Yet, in this case, I can say that I went in already primed to appreciate this film. I am not what I would call an LOA mega fan, since I am committed exclusively to their first LP and demo. However, they are definitely in what some folks would call my “first ten”; that is, the first ten records of punk and hardcore I ever heard. In fact, “This Time” and “Underground” were on the second mix tape of hardcore music anyone ever made me. Granted, when I first heard these tracks, I was immediately turned off. Mina Caputo’s vocals at the time were not for me. I wanted something tough, something “hard” and “menacing,” and her voice was anything but. That changed over time, though, and it was not long before I was pretty into the record as a whole. So before I began, I wanted to like this movie, because I knew enough about this band to know they had a story to tell.
In fact, I had no idea how much story they had to tell. Now, stories of abuse, violence, and dysfunctional home life have never been uncommon in subculture of various kinds. I had friends who came to shows in the ‘90s to escape hard things and to find often times the sorts of family they didn’t have at home. It seems, though, that the members of Life of Agony were experiencing the extremes of those experiences. The Sound of Scars explores their home lives, the ways violence at home and at shows informed them, and how their dynamic together was both life-giving and difficult.
Of course, a huge part of that narrative is Mina’s, as we learn about her coming out as trans and she discusses the importance her transitioning had for her mental health and for the band. It is a truly inspiring narrative, one I found compelling, but the film very insightfully knows that her story is not the only one in the band. All three permanent members of the band have interesting stories to tell and those stories speak not only to hardcore and metal, but to America, to a world where toxic masculinity and poverty were norms for so many. Mina is, of course, captivating; not just her story, but her personality, as anyone who has seen them can attest to. She is a character, a person who has experienced great pain but still finds hope, and a funny charmer with a sharp wit and a hilariously New York accent. Still, the film knows that while she is the frontperson of the band, the band is a whole and each of them have had their own journeys, both apart and together, to create the legacy of the band.
So how does the filmmaking hold up beyond the compelling narrative of its subjects? Pretty well, actually. I don’t think there is much innovation here; the aesthetics of the film follow a model established by a ton of other music documentaries, but it also doesn’t get in the way. In the end, that might be the smartest way to document an artist whose fan base is so devoted and intense. Simply tell the story directly, with as little fanfare as possible, highlighting their personalities, their music, and their home lives. I am not a big enough fan to know if there is anything obviously missing. As a casual fan, though a long term one, I found the film to be everything I wanted. We hear about their formation, the forces at play on them as they grew, and the complex emotions that led Mina to leave the band initially. We even hear from Ugly Kid Joe frontman Whitfield Crane, who ever so briefly tried to step into the void left when Mina quit the group. The film handles the gender issues relatively well, while allowing those around the band who are clearly still adjusting to be who they are. We see the tensions at play and the filmmakers know how much of this to make a part of the narrative without ever feeling like they are exploiting Mina’s story.
All that said, I suspect those of you reading this who are already interested in a Life of Agony documentary were already going to see it. If you were on the fence, I say do it. I was emotional many times throughout the film and there were definitely personal insights into their stories I was entirely ignorant of. However, what if you are reading this out of morbid curiosity but are not really a fan of the band? Would you enjoy this film? I can honestly say I am not sure, but still recommend you check it out. From gender issues to mental health issues, to questions of forgiveness and abuse, there is a ton in this story worth seeing and thinking about. I was not, during this film, focusing purely on how sick the riffs in “Through and Through” are. This film made me think about the resilience of the human spirit and of the complicated role artists have in portraying pain, suffering and even suicide. Still, there is a lot here for fans, and if you are one those who has written this band off since the ‘90s, this might not win you over. It might, though, and I love these folks enough to suggest you give it a try. This is an achingly human story and one I think was worth telling.