Better Than Something: Jay Reatard
(Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, US, 2011, 89 mins.)

Jay Reatard and Stephen Pope at Sonic Boom in Ballard
  • K.C. Fennessy
  • Stephen Pope and Jay Reatard (Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr.) at Sonic Boom in Ballard

During his relatively short stint on this Earth, Jay Reatard poured his heart into his work. Love it or leave it, you can't deny his dedication, but extreme careers often go hand-in-hand with extreme lives, and Reatard isn't here anymore.

If he doesn't always come across as the nicest guy in this even-handed portrait—he could be a total dick—he was never a dilettante or a poseur.

Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, associates of director/cinematographer Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), start by soliciting reminiscences from Reatard's colleagues at 2010's SXSW before backtracking to interviews and performance footage from 1999-2009, including video of a screaming, howling, short-haired teenager—more hardcore than garage-punk at that point in time. Admits Reatard, "If I wouldn't have found music, I'm sure I'd have been a petty criminal."


"I'm more like a jack-off of all trades."

By the new millennium, he was still having on-stage temper tantrums and battling audience members in a series of bands: Lost Sounds, Destruction Unit, Angry Angles, and the Reatards. Shangri-La Records founder Sherman Wilmott says that he wasn't a very popular figure in Memphis. Friend Jonathan Boyd adds, "He couldn't care less if people didn't like it or didn't think it was good or worthwhile."

Other speakers include In the Red founder Larry Hardy, Goner Records co-owners Zac Ives and Eric "Oblivian" Friedl, Memphis Flyer writer Andria Lisle, Cheap Time leader Jeffrey Novak, and bassist Stephen Pope (now in Wavves).

Despite his enfant terrible reputation, Reatard comes across as friendly and forthcoming in the latter-day interview segments. He clearly felt comfortable with the filmmakers, who hang out with him around town and at a few in-store performances. He submits that touring tires him out and that he prefers to work on music when he's bummed out, hence the bummed-out sounds he produced.


"I Know I'm not gonna be able to make records when I'm dead...it's that simple really."

Better Than Something isn't bad, but it never really gets to the bottom of Reatard's anger issues. He grew up poor, but his mother and sisters were supportive, so why would he sometimes turn on associates? He acknowledges a tendency to self-sabotage, but it isn't clear why. There may be no easy answers, but I wish the directors had dug deeper. That rage lives on in Reatard's music, though, where you can tap into it at will, even if he was never able to let it go.

The duo also fail to mention when and how he passed away, though they certainly don't ignore his death. Reatard died in 2010 of a drug overdose, nine months after the interviews in the film, which reveal a cogent and healthy-looking musician. Clearly, the intent was to focus on his life rather than his death, but films aren't often made about the under-30 set, and death will always define Jay Reatard.

Jay Reatard: Better Than Something plays The Grand Illusion 3/2-8 at 7 and 9pm (plus 5pm on Sat. and Sun.). No 9pm screening on Sat. The theater is located at 1403 NE 50th. For more information, click here or call 206-523-3935.