Few rock ‘n’ roll documentaries capture the contagious magic of being in a young, broke, and hungry band on the road quite like Riding in Vans with Boys(2003, Resting Bird Entertainment). Most filmmakers wrongly assume the magic is in the supposed inevitability of Caligula-esque debauchery, when the real magic is in the fact that, for any successful band, self-discipline and a complete lack of responsibility must peacefully coexist. There’s certainly a little Rome here (an evening in Alabama at an “alternative” nightclub, a drunken branding on the buttocks by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), but there’s also plenty of hard work and lessons learned by the surprisingly likeable characters of little-known band Kut U Up, semi-accurately described in Boys as a “trippy, acid rock thing.” The film’s unique approach of allowing viewers to witness how a small, “nobody” band handles their sudden submersion in perhaps the biggest tour of 2002 (The Pop Disaster Tour) gives Riding in Vans with Boys a heart generally lacking in all “rockumentaries.”

The tour itself, featuring Blink 182 (including producers and Boys masterminds Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus), Green Day, and Jimmy Eat World, spanned nearly the entire United States, giving Kut U Up plenty of space to either help or destroy the career of their band. Kut U Up seems to walk a fine line here, caring just enough to get by at certain points in the film, while willingly shifting from smiles to desperate anger in other situations – including, particularly, an opportunity for massive radio exposure at one stop on the tour, conveniently ruined by singer Chris Cote’s night spent on Tom DeLonge’s far from prompt bus. The charm of Boys is immediate, smartly allowing the viewer to experience each drink, fight, or song right along with Kut U Up. The comedic turmoil unfolds around them (and, in some cases, because of them), painting the band as somewhat of a collective “leading man” in a poignant, feel good comedy about accomplishing your dreams. The aforementioned turmoil comes largely in the form of Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge & Mark Hoppus and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong & Mike Dirnt, though mostly all patrons are present at any given time doing any number of stupid but entertaining things. The live and behind-the-scenes footage of Blink 182 and Green Day definitely moves the film along, but the treasure here is Kut U Up’s simultaneous ascent/descent into semi-accomplished rock stars. Missing girlfriends, audience rejection, dreading their eventual return to paying the bills with a cubicle job…it’s all here and documented with a graceful balance of wit and grit.

Of course, seeing your favorite band effortlessly juggle drinking and audience satisfaction is surely a pleasure – but such displays are far from enlightening, and even further from inspiring. Riding in Vans with Boys avoids this traditional “juggle” formula followed by similar films, boldly accomplishing a full blend of everything you’d expect from a music documentary while subtly displaying the heart of its subjects. The film tiptoes around the clichés and offers a new thesis – rock ‘n’ roll isn’t hard or fun; it’s a dizzying and satisfying medley of both.

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