By Jeff Walsh
"Almost Infamous" is the new documentary about The Kinsey Sicks from the same people that brought us the amazingly well-shot and entertaining "I Wanna Be A Republican" live concert. The movie recently had its world premiere at the 32nd annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
It's really two movies in one. The first half sets up the history and back stories of the group and its current and former members, whereas the second half is where it becomes the drag queen equivalent of Metallica's "Some Kind of Monster," where we see the group dealing with the strain of being a touring group about to have their own show in Las Vegas.
I've been a fan of the group for years, so seeing their history was more of a flashback for me than an educational experience. The only San Francisco show I didn't see was their first time singing publicly at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro (and, stupidly, the shows they shot for the first movie). But the documentary team got to dig in deep and really introduce us to the boys behind the Kinseys. We get to meet their families, and see how Irwin Keller's mother is the inspiration for Winnie, learn that Ben Schatz (as the lawyer who drafted Clinton's AIDS policies) gave Bill a copy of their first Dragapella CD the night before he was impeached giving him a good laugh during a serious time, and how Chris Dilley and Jeff Manabat had to fill the heels of the members who came before them.
I did feel there was a disconnect between the two halves of the film, but at the same time I don't know how it could easily be rectified. In the case of the Metallica documentary, well… they're Metallica, so there's little need for backstory and you can just pick up in service of them struggling to create their new album. But with the Kinseys, let's face it, I'm in the minority as far as how many times I've seen them perform for the past decade, the group members I've chatted with, the amount of their songs I know… so for a more general audience of non Kinsey Sickos, you need to sort of lay a lot of that groundwork. And the stuff I didn't know and hadn't seen before was very enjoyable.
It did seem that the documentary took off when it started on the group's proposed standing show in Las Vegas, which would mean the end of their time as a touring group (I won't spoil the ending, but if you want to see the group, they're touring this summer). It seems like they are more functional as a touring group and as soon as the notion of the standing show is introduced, it creates a lot of drama. Irwin co-parents kids in the Bay Area and isn't sure how long he can stay away from them; Ben pushes for understudies so he can retreat to his new home of Puerto Vallarta on occasion; Jeff is.. well, Jeff is ready to move to Vegas and be a full-time whore, well… onstage as Trixie, at least; and Chris hates everything about Vegas.
The second half of the movie is where we see the rifts in the group, and how they struggle to maintain their artistic integrity with financial backers who want them to be more like… singing drag queens. We learn that Jeff isn't as comfortable with the group's famous onstage ad-libbing, feeling distant and more of a spectator when it is happening onstage and he's not a part of it; Chris is sometimes less selective about how he mentions that he has more musical training and background than Ben or Irwin (one line Chris says to Ben actually won him some jeers and hissing at the screening), which would be welcome as Rachel and Trampolina, but is less enjoyable when they're Ben and Chris; that Irwin seems to be the peacemaker in the group, smoothing out the conflicts between others; and that Ben will stand on principle, in the case of not wanting to remove a somber, inspiring song about his friend's death to crystal meth addiction (the guy who was Vaselina in the group), preferring to have less money and be happy.
Being so familiar with the "Republican" show (which if you don't already own it, is available on DVD and required viewing), it did seem to rely on a lot of the footage from that same show, and a lot of the interview segments in the beginning were from the same interviews as the Republican cutaways, so it had a familiar feel to it, but did give me the slight feeling like we were seeing Republican outtakes. Of course, older Kinsey shows were never professionally shot, and mainly looked like a video camera set up in the back of the theater, so you can see why they favor the much-better footage.
After seeing their Broadway hopes dashed in 2001, opening their show a month after September 11 when no New Yorkers were interested in going to the theater, and now years later with a Vegas show that won rave reviews but not packed houses, it is interesting to see how the group perseveres (their new album, Sicks! Sicks! Sicks! comes out later this month, reviewed here soon I'm sure) and pushes through its obstacles.
I don't know if there was enough drama or enough footage to maintain a full documentary purely about Vegas without the backstories or, like I said earlier, if they would be required for most viewers, But, in any event, the second half was where people stopped being polite and started being real, to cop from MTV.
The movie will probably play the festival circuit and then wind up on DVD somewhere down the line. It's definitely worth checking out. I'll be sure to let you know when it's released on DVD.
The Eyethink Pictures page about Almost Infamous, where you'll find any upcoming screening information.
The Kinsey Sicks webpage, for tour and album information.