In the grunge-led history of early '90s rock, while Nirvana was distilling punk, Sonic Youth was entering the mainstream and Beck's "Loser" was the radio/MTV hit du jour, one little band from Dayton, Ohio, came outta nowhere to rewrite the rules. But just as the group was getting courted by the majors, upending the festivals and settling into a rhythm, the tragic and bizarre loss of their leader cut the story short. They were Brainiac, and they were everything.
With a career that includes far more producer credits than not, filmmaker Eric Mahoney dons his director's cap to tell Brainiac's story—one that began with leader/singer/songwriter Tim Taylor performing in jazz bands with his dad and ended up on the eve of massive success; Taylor, sadly, died in a freak car accident in 1997, just as Brainiac was poised to make the big bucks and big impact, and checking in with the surviving members today is all too solemn a reminder that fame is fleeting, but lost friendships sting the hardest.
Mahoney's Brainiac reverence is front and center, ditto for the numerous musicians who made it big and cite the band as one of the reasons why. As At the Drive-In's Cedric Bixler-Zavala points out in the film, with the world in love with grunge circa-1990-something, for a band to take elements of jazz, funk, punk, whatever Devo is and pop, throw it in a blender of experimentation and come out the other side with actually cohesive (and marketable) songs was a miracle. It still feels miraculous and powerful so many years later.
Transmissions After Zero brilliantly inserts the music of Brainiac as both reminders of excellence and emotional cues, and the final product is easily one of the most vulnerable series of interviews in a music documentary. Even so, minimal information about surviving members' lives post-Brainiac fell all too brief, and there are only so many times you can hear someone say "It was crazy, man!" Mahoney still provides a unique doc, and one that's guaranteed to win new fans (full disclosure: I'd never even heard of the band, of which I'm ashamed), stoke up the old standbys and remind us that sometimes weirdos wind up doing good.
+Killer music; killer interviews
-Mildly repetitive; not as much info on living members
Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero
Directed by Mahoney
Amazon, NR, 118 min.