When three UCLA film school friends embarked on their first feature, they didn't know it would take three years to finish and end up a lo-fi classic. After co-directors Allison Anders (who went on to movies like Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca), Kurt Voss, and Dean Lent roped in punk front man Chris D. to star, he brought his musician friends along, turning the movie into a snapshot of the end of an era.
Border Radio follows Jeff Bailey (Chris D.), a local musician who's on the verge of real success, but at the risk of selling out his sound and his scene. John Doe (of the band X) plays Dean, Jeff's bass player and a party to the small, forgettable crime at the movie's heart. After getting stiffed for their cut of the door one night, Jeff, Dean, and Chris (Chris Shearer) -- Jeff's roadie and supposed best friend -- bust into the club's office, open the safe, and make off with a handful of Quaaludes and a thousand bucks. Hardly the crime of the century.
But when the club owner's goons come after him, Jeff runs south, hiding out in a Mexican trailer park while his on-again off-again wife Luanna is left to sort out what exactly happened. After shacking up with Chris, she eventually drags the story out of Dean to find out that it was all Chris' idea, and that he's been lying to her about it from the beginning.
She sells her car to pay back the club owner, only to find out that it's already been settled. Jeff, who's been sitting on the beach drunk for most of the film, called from Mexico and straightened it out days after the robbery. Like a punk rock Chandler novel that never really goes anywhere, Border Radio's characters stumble around between minor confusions and missed connections that, like life, don't wrap up into a grand finale.
What's surprising is how good the acting is, given that only one person had taken an acting class. Chris D. is solid as Jeff and Doe, in his first role, is great (he went on to act in everything from Boogie Nights to Law & Order). Chris Shearer is a natural, spontaneous and funny, and the Blasters' Dave Alvin is hilarious as ... well, Dave, a bouncer and guitar player. (The unfortunate exception is Luanna, played by Luanna Anders, Allison's sister. Her delivery is flat and affectless, and when she runs out of script, unlike the others she can't ad lib, just flounders. But it was her first and only feature.)
The film sounds and looks far better than its budget. Alvin also did the movie's music, an eclectic mix of cowpunk twang and tinny norteño radio, with songs by Chris D.'s, Doe's, and Alvin's bands. It's shot in low-contrast, grainy black-and-white, with ingenious framing and shots that go on so long they look like stills. Shots of scruffy wild horses galloping along the beach, the old paddle boats on Echo Park Lake, a boat beached next to a desert motel, and electric towers looming up over the street are presented like found objects.
By accident, the film caught the last days of a movement, as the culture its setting and stars came from folded. Intercut with the action are talking head shots from a documentary about Bailey. In one, a punked-out scenester talks about how the good bands got record deals (like Doe and Alvin), the bad bands broke up, the clubs closed, and the fans got left behind -- true in the movie, and true in the scene.
Border Radio is rough around the edges, but the surprise is how much works. And it's proof that even with nothing but a few friends and a lot of patience, it's possible to make a movie that holds up even 25 years later. But it helps if your friends are rock stars.