Cinema Review: Desolation Center | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, August 12th, 2020  

Desolation Center

Studio: Passion River
Directed by Stuart Swezey

Jun 16, 2020 Web Exclusive
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In the early ‘80s, a guerilla team from the downtown LA punk scene assembled a series of loosely-structured happenings in atypical venues. Self-dubbed the Desolation Center, the most famous of their events were a trio of shows held in remote, unpermitted sections of the Mojave Desert. Schoolbus loads of young punks were driven out to the secret locations, where they gathered among the sand and boulders around a generator and hastily-erected soundsystem to watch seminal bands like the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Red Kross, and Einstürzende Neubauten perform in the natural environment.

Directed by the events’ primary organizer, Desolation Center chronicles these experiences with the intimacy of a home video. In spite of their being such DIY affairs, the Desolation Center shows were incredibly well-documented in photography and video footage—it’s impossible to imagine they’d have had more material to work with had the events been covered explicitly for this by a full documentary crew. That might be the most wonderful thing about this movie: the wealth of video and audio captured of iconic independent bands at turning points in their career. Seeing Minutemen perform songs that would soon appear on Double Nickels on the Dime aboard a whaling ship circling the San Pedro Harbor—for one of Desolation Center’s rare non-desert shows—or even a pre-SST Sonic Youth give a rip-roaring show for a bunch of LSD-dosed youths while lit by only a few flood lights and the full moon; for any fans of the music and the era, these performances are a godsend. Just as exciting are the footage of Einstürzende Neubauten sending a shower of sparks across the sand as they saw through sheet metal, or the rapid-fire clips of near-forgotten LA bands that set the literal scene over the film’s opening minutes.

Watching the footage now—and hearing their attendees reminisce over what they did, in more than mild disbelief—there’s a sense that what Desolation Center pulled off was immensely irresponsible, but undeniably punk rock. Dragging a bunch of kids out into the desert, near no medical or even bathroom facilities, letting the drugs and alcohol flow, and then setting off explosives as multimedia performance art—there’s a horrifying story about how a bomb-thrown piece of sheet metal came very close to slicing a crowd of concertgoers in half—is something that just couldn’t happen today without major legal ramifications. However, it lends the events an almost mythical quality.

The documentary ends rather abruptly, as the shows stopped when it sounds like the organizers simply got tired of doing them. (The film links Minutemen singer D. Boon’s death to the ending of an era, which is a nice, poignant note to wrap with, but could have done with some extrapolation on what happened with the rest of the scene.) Desolation Center finally details the way in which these anarchic get-togethers begat pop culture powerhouses like Burning Man, Coachella, and Lollapalooza—seeing those DIY ethos bloat into these money-making juggernauts seems to point to a bigger message about punk being dead that’s hardly explored. Either way, Desolation Center captures and scene in a way that’s a real treasure, and is essential viewing for fans of any of the bands it covers.

(www.desolationcenter.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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