Punk music evolved around political distrust in the UK and the US, as well as a blatant reaction to art and progressive rock, and was typically performed by white men with a resolve to destroy instruments and ear drums. When four black men formed Bad Brains in D.C. in the late 1970s, they absorbed that destructive style and fused it with positive messages, complex rhythms that put their contemporaries to shame, and a stage presence that was as dynamic as their music. The band would prove themselves to be more than a novelty, but forge a path making them a heavy influence on the funk metal that proliferated in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

The Bad Brains: A Band in DC goes back and forth between the chronological history of the band beginning the late-1970s and life on the road in a 2007 reunion tour, one of many we will find. On stage, front man H.R. (Human Rights) offers a dynamic, back-flipping stage presence that would engage with the audience like no other. Off stage, HR is a wildly unpredictable man with a penchant for cannabis with an effeminate voice and a mind that goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. These polar states would become a common pattern for Bad Brains, particularly during the 1990s and throughout the oughts, where the band would continuously re-unite and then disband, almost always dependent on HR’s behavior on and off stage.

The novelty of race in Bad Brains becomes an afterthought, simply because the band has so much more to offer. While punk bands feature rather destructive tendencies in their music, personalities, and lyrics, Bad Brains had their own idealism; positive mental attitude. When shortened to “PMA,” the band was able to disguise this optimism behind intensely fast rhythms and HR’s screaming vocals. What might appear to be just another punk band making vying for being loud and crude, Bad Brains was far from such.

Punk was a style that is meant to be loud, fat, fast, crude, and ugly. But Bad Brains was louder, fatter, and faster, while remaining precise but forthright. When the band collectively began to follow the Rastafarian movement, they absorbed the reggae sound into their music, creating a duality that questioned their fans and even the band. Although the band chose to follow their original punk-fusion sound, they retained the Rastafarian values in their music, lyrics, and lungs. Accepting a new musical style was not a strange concept to the band, they were originally a jazz fusion band named Mind Power, until punk’s influence gave them a chance to truly portray some musical and lyrical grit.

Over time, a pattern emerges. The four would reunite, tour, and subsequently disband with HR’s continuously unpredictable performances, that is, if he shows at all. Meanwhile, Dr. Know (guitar), Darryl Jennifer (bass), Earl Hudson (drums), would form a punk foundation that influenced bands such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Faith No More, and even found fans in their early career such as Henry Rollins, who saw them when he was a teenager, long before Black Flag was a twinkle in his eye.

If history is an indication, Bad Brains will hit the road again, probably with the same internal issues they have always had. It is the reason why Bad Brains: A Band in DC feels so incomplete, probably because this pattern will arise again, and most definitely because there is something about this story that denotes the beginning of a second act. The film moves quickly for a story that is both unique and authentic, portraying the many rise and falls with clarity thanks to interviews with the individual members, their managers, and the musicians they influenced. 

Bad Brains: A Band in DC