When filmmakers Alexandria Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, directors of the recent Better Than Something, first met its subject, Memphis punk rock musician Jay Reatard, they weren’t sure what to expect, given his name and his notoriety for transgressive, even violent stage antics. Brought in by Matador Records to make a short promotional film for the impending release of Reatard’s album Watch Me Fall, the pair of documentary veterans — Hammond had helmed a feature doc on homeless children in Haiti, while Markiewicz had worked with legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, including editing The Beales of Grey Gardens — weren’t very familiar with the pugnacious enfant terrible‘s prolific output with bands like the Reatards, the Lost Sounds, and Angry Angles. “I thought he was a little intimidating,” admits Hammond of their initial encounter, while Markiewicz recalls, “He had his hair down in his face the whole time.”
When they went to Memphis to film for a week in April 2009, however, Reatard (whose real name was Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.) gave them much more than they bargained for. “He really just opened up,” says Hammond. “He didn’t stop talking. It was hard to really get anything in because he just had so much to say, and he was fascinating. This was honestly a unique person.”
Rather than producing what Markiewicz termed “this little very surface EPK,” what the pair created instead was the 20-minute short Waiting For Something — centering around a series of extremely frank interviews about Reatard’s hardscrabble upbringing and cantankerous DIY career — and hatched future plans to go out on the road with Reatard at some point to potentially expand the film into a feature. “He loved it,” says Hammond of the short. “He felt it was something he could take pride in, not just like a film made about him but a film that in some way he had made himself.”
“Jay was like the secret director, really,” concurs Markiewicz.
When Reatard died suddenly at 29 in January 2010 (the result of a toxic combo of cocaine and alcohol), Hammond and Markiewicz were initially reluctant to revisit their hours of footage. “It affected us deeply,” says Hammond of Reatard’s passing. “We had fallen in love with him in some ways. You become attached to a character once you start following them.” After attending an Austin tribute show in Reatard’s honor at SXSW two months after his death, however, they began to collect postmortem interviews with Jay’s friends and family. The result, the feature-length Better Than Something (currently playing in selected theaters, available via video on demand and DVD in June), does a remarkable job of capturing Reatard’s complicated, conflicted, and often prickly persona. The film — along with the recent Lost Sounds collection on Fat Possum, the ongoing Reatards reissues on Goner, and an Angry Angles compilation and career retrospective in the works — provides an extremely intimate and bittersweet look at a mercurial talent who flamed out far too soon. “He was so complex, and people didn’t know that about him,” says Hammond. “I wish we had more time with him.”