As a die-hard fan of The Police, I really wanna love Stewart Copeland’s documentary Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out more than I do. During that band’s six-year meteoric rise to stardom, drummer Copeland shot endless reels of Super 8mm footage, and he’s edited it down into a mostly compelling 71-minute inside-look at fame, fortune, and fractured friendships.
For you young ‘uns out there, Super 8mm is what consumers used for movies long before videotape became widely available. And oh yeah, The Police is the band where Sting got his start (before becoming the most boring white guy to make music since Phil Collins).
With its grainy, blurry, “you-are-there” vibe, Everybody Stares certainly puts the audience in the van with the band as they travel across the land. With influences based in punk and reggae, nobody else sounded like The Police, then or now. At the core of everything they did: Copeland’s headstrong drumming (punctuated by the snappiest, splashiest snare drum in history), Andy Summers’ multi-layered guitar weavings and janglings, and Sting’s songwriting and soulful, sometimes shrieking vocals. These ingredients made The Police one of the most exciting and influential bands of the last three decades.
At the height of it all, as often happens, the band imploded. Music magazines were filled with rumors of shouting matches and long-festering resentments. At the end, this trio was tight only when performing. Socially they were like resentful brothers forced to share a tiny bedroom. Each complained of needing space and room to grow.
If Copeland’s movie has a flaw, it’s that he chooses to end the story just as the band is prepping to record its masterpiece, Synchronicity, the Sting-driven magnum opus that made them a worldwide sensation. By all accounts, it was the tortured recording of this album (and subsequent tour) that split them apart.
I wanted the complete story of The Police from Copeland because, hell, he was there. Not just the rise, but also the fall, that cliched VH1 Behind the Scenes moment where “…it all came crashing down."
I caught my own personal razor-thin glimpse of this at a 1985 concert in Birmingham, Alabama. The Police were tight and energetic onstage, but even from my distant seat, I could see absolutely no sign of camaraderie or even professional acknowledgement between the band-mates. They played a song, Sting would say “thanks,” and they’d launch into the next tune with nary a glance at the other. (Two years later I’d see the Smiths do the same thing on stage in Florida, shortly before they called it quits).
Everybody Stares willfully shuts its eyes tight at the point when we really start staring. Some reviewers accuse it of white-washing the band’s story. That’s a valid criticism, and as someone who dearly loved this band, I wanted more.
But, knowing the story like I do, my fanboy instincts also wanna cut Copeland some slack. He clearly has no interest in revisiting past traumas. His head’s in a new place (he's an acclaimed film score composer, and is enjoying many innovative new projects like Oysterhead), he’s re-established a healthier relationship with his former bandmates, and his goal here is to share the best part of the band’s story with its fans. If you’re a fan and you give yourself over to it, Everybody Stares is a lot of fun.
The band looks so damn young, like bleached-blonde felines ready to pounce. The concert footage is lively and revealing (one early gig sees drunken audience members literally flopping across the stage in various stages of passing out). And off-stage, the musicians are funny, ironic, and wonderfully sane as the world goes crazy around them.
That’s the image Copeland wants us to have of The Police, the one that he thinks matters more than anything else. Okay, Stewart, so be it.
But there’s much more to this story, and it’s obviously up to others to tell it. If you want an unblinking glimpse into the tension that killed off this creative triumverate, the best source is rock writer Vic Garbarini. Highly recommended is his 2003 Guitar World article detailing with uncomfortable precision the band’s final studio session in 1986, when they came together to re-record two earlier songs as part of a greatest-hits package:
Laurie Latham, the sessions engineer, is also having a difficult time handling the situation, and who can blame him? Andy is silently smoldering, Stewart is staggering and Sting is coolly distancing himself from the proceedings. This isn't an interactive group, thinks Lantham, it's a goddamned Chekhov play.
And to balance out that really dark moment, to show how time equals wisdom equals forgiveness, try this hilarious but still-bristly Garbarini-led group interview from 2000. In a round-table recollection with Sting, Copeland, and Summers, it’s clear that even though the wounds have healed and friendships have been rekindled, they still can’t resist pointing to the thick scar tissue and saying, “Hey, buddy, remember when you did this shit to me?”
What the hell does any of this have to do with screenwriting? Maybe not much for us spec monkeys, but I always find it useful to see how different storytellers locate and compose narrative. In a Q&A session with the audience after Wednesday night's ArcLight/AFI screening, Copeland talked about the difficulties of fashioning a coherent storyline from endless three-minute reels of travel and concert footage. With judicious use of titles and voice-over, he invites the audience into a surreal and intimate world by effectively re-creating that sense of dislocated velocity that comes from endless touring. You’re “with the band” in the truest sense, and while it’s a simple journey with a mostly conflict-free story arc, the characters are engimatic, magnetic, and impossible not to watch, particularly Andy Summers, who even Copeland admitted quickly emerges as the “star” of the story.
Copeland had endless praise for what he called “the democritization of technology,” which puts affordable, professional tools in the hands of up-and-coming bands. While it’s probably harder than ever for new artists to break out with a chart-topping hit, he’s glad it’s easier for bands to make their music in the first place.
He also recounted the amazing story of cutting this movie, beginning with the incredible frustration of trying to edit the Super 8mm films back in the 1980s. You had to find your chosen edit on a tiny celluloid strip about the width of your pinky-nail and physically cut it with a razor. Match one end with another cut and then -- no lie -- glue or tape them together. And those splices almost always snapped when fed through a projector. As someone who made several Super 8mm shorts back in the day, I can testify: it truly sucked. Copeland saw that he was irreversibly damaging some of the footage in the process, so he quickly abandoned the project and stored the reels away, waiting for the day when technology might allow for a friendlier, easier experience.
Flash forward to 2005: After dumping those brittle old Super 8mm reels into Final Cut Pro, Copeland started playing around with the project, looking for a story to shape. He turned to GarageBand and other sound tools to produce the wonderful soundtrack. Using various outtakes from live and studio recordings, Copeland has essentially pieced together an epic, almost-continual sound collage, previously-unexisting Police songs -- "derangements," he calls them -- that sound at once familiar and completely brand-new. His lawyers are hoping to clear this soundtrack for release, but apparently Copeland mish-mashed together so many recordings from various sources it’s gonna take them months to trace all the samples. Just another example of the mad state of copyright law in the world.
All in all, Copeland spent a few months sitting at his Mac, churning out a film that made it to the Sundance Film Festival and may soon go into limited distribution … a movie that will certainly find a receptive audience on DVD. And if that’s not an inspiring clarion call to storytellers everywhere, I dunno what is.
The last question posed to Copeland was the most heartbreaking: is there any chance The Police will reunite for one more album or tour?
Copeland looked to Andy Summers, who was sitting in the audience. (Sting wasn't there; according to Copeland, he's enthusiastic about the film, but is magnificently phobic about seeing himself onscreen.)
The former band-mates smiled sadly at each other, and Copeland could only shake his head.