Better Than Something
Jay Reatard
Factory 25

Sadly, when Jay Reatard was found dead in January 2010, the Memphis musician was peaking in terms of both creativity and popularity. His final two albums—the two he released under his own (fake) name—showed Reatard moving away from the rough and tussle of his earlier years and indulging his melodic impulses. Those records and the string of singles he had released on Matador in 2008 showed that such instincts were serving him well, as they were commercially as well as critically successful. By all rights, he should have been on top of the world.

While an autopsy revealed that Reatard died of “cocaine toxicity,” there’s never been much light shed on the circumstances leading to the his demise. Better Than Something, a documentary directed by Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, adds little clarity. If anything, it does the opposite. The film, which was released in theaters earlier this year and is now being issued on DVD with an additional 20 minutes of footage and with a 50-page book, presents Jay as vibrant and well-spoken, and someone with an understanding of his own culpabilities. The man presented in the movie, which originally was being shot as a short promotional film before Jay’s death, isn’t some reckless rock & roller living life on the edge, though onstage Jay could certainly be a wild man (he once bit the head off a pigeon), nor is he a reclusive artiste biding his time until death finds him. Throughout the documentary, he seems driven by his creativity, racing to capture it at every opportunity before his time is up.

Hammond and Markiewicz did an exceptional job in creating an evenhanded portrayal of Reatard. Rather than editing to try to foreshadow his death, Jay is shown as the lively individual that he was, and at times it is easy to forget that he is no longer with us. With interviews with Eric Oblivion and others who knew him when he began making music as a teenager, it’s clear Jay knew what he wanted to do from the get-go. Reatard comments that he probably would have been a petty criminal if he didn’t make music, but it’s clear that he would never have had the passion for stealing cars that he had for making noise. In a video of his first band, the Reatards, Jay sings with blood streaming down his face after smashing a beer bottle on his own head. With the band performing in someone’s basement with just a dozen or so onlookers in attendance, such audacious behavior obviously wasn’t done for notoriety, but rather as an expression of how the music stirred something deep inside of him.

Interviews with former band members reveal that Jay wasn’t the easiest person with whom to work, but it’s also apparent that they understood that it wasn’t really personal. Jay was driven by an unrelenting passion, and it manifested itself in different ways. As Reatard admits at the end of the film, he was racing to make as much music as possible before his time was up. Obviously, that end came way too soon, but it is fortunate that Hammond and Markiewicz were able to have the time with him that they did. It’s easy to tell that Reatard would have continued to broaden the scope of his music had he not passed away (we’re told he had a country record planned), and as such, we’re all a little lesser for it.
Stephen Slaybaugh