You're Gonna Miss Me

You're Gonna Miss Me


Reviewed by: Themroc

Keven McAlester says that his low-key, low-budget digital film started as an attempt to document the life and career of an icon who was in danger of being forgotten by everyone except his devoted cult following. Singer, lyricist and guitarist Roky Erickson originally rose to prominence in the mid Sixties with cult garage rock band 13th Floor Elevators, who scored their only hit in 1966 with the Erickson composition from which this documentary takes its name. The band’s prodigious consumption of marijuana, mescaline and LSD helped transform them into one of the most influential pioneers of what was to become known as psychedelic rock. In support of his claim to his subject’s greatness, McAlester has unearthed some thrilling live footage (although, sadly, very little still exists) and brief interviews with, among others, Patti Smith and Thurston Moore, both of whom pay tribute to Erickson’s talent and importance as a singer, songwriter and musician.

But instead of the standard rock hagiography full of empty eulogising and redundant hyperbole, what in fact emerges is an intimate and rather sad portrait of a shattered and deeply dysfunctional family unit attempting to come to terms with itself. McAlester opens the film with a court hearing at which Roky’s guardianship by his mother is being contested by his younger brother Sumner. It’s not until the end of the film that we discover what the judge’s ruling in that case was. By then we have had Roky’s deeply troubled history recounted to us via press clippings, archive interviews and testimony from family members, ex-wives, ex-band mates and friends, all of whom, no matter how badly treated, still seem genuinely fond and protective of him.

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The 13th Floor Elevators’ career was cut short after just three albums, when Erickson, who had already been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was arrested for possession of a joint’s worth of marijuana. Since the band - and Erickson in particular - had been vocal advocates of the benefits of drug use, it was decided that an example ought to be made. As the famously progressive state of Texas prepared the throw the book at him, Erickson’s lawyer had the brilliant idea of using Roky’s schizophrenia as a way of pleading diminished responsibility. Erickson was committed for psychiatric treatment, and following numerous escape attempts was transferred to an asylum for the criminally insane where he was subjected repeatedly to electric shock treatment.

He emerged, three and a half years later, not quite broken but a severely traumatised man. Although Erickson continued to make dark and extremely strange music during the 1970s and 1980s with a variety of bands and line-ups, by the late 1990s, following another brief spell of institutionalisation, he had given up music completely and become a recluse.

It is here that, as he fills us in on the background, McAlester picks up the story in the present day. Following a life of drug abuse, suffering and mistreatment, Erickson cuts a tragic and rather childlike figure now. Although often optimistic and cheery, he’s nevertheless delusional and vulnerable to attacks of paranoia. His mother, who, when the film opens, is looking after him, appears well-meaning but is also overbearing, manipulative and manifestly incapable of caring for someone who is so ill that they self-evidently need professional advice and treatment. She doesn’t believe in using medication to treat her son’s schizophrenia, instead advocating a course of holistic medicines, yoga and Jesus. As a result of this and the poverty in which they both live, Roky’s mental and physical health have been allowed to deteriorate alarmingly.

It’s a tribute to the film’s maturity and sensitivity that in spite of her obvious pride and irresponsibility, Roky’s mother is not patronised, caricatured or blamed for what has happened either to her son or her family. Likewise, the temptation to explain Roky’s condition by pinpointing a single specific cause is resisted. Instead, McAlester has shot, edited and constructed his film so that it somehow manages to treat its subject with both a dispassion that ensures neutrality and a compassion that gives each of the characters, no matter how flawed, the benefit of the doubt.

Erickson’s mother, although not diagnosed as clinically ill like her son, is nevertheless clearly unbalanced. Sumner also confesses to being seriously damaged by his upbringing, but no matter how well-intentioned many of his own actions are (and whatever the criticisms they are indisputably preferable to leaving Roky with their mother) it is debatable whether his New Age psycho-babbling therapist will help his brother’s recovery in any meaningful way. But all these people, we are given to understand, have suffered in their own ways. If anything, Roky’s mental illness in a way insulates him from the pain which the other members of his family still endure. No matter how curious their behaviour or alarming their misjudgements, we are not invited to mock them for their naivety or condescend them with our pity. Instead, there seems to be an implicit admiration for them simply as survivors who continue to battle to do the right thing by someone they love because, in spite of their own problems, they still feel he’s a cause worth fighting for.

The film does conclude on a note of optimism, but it is a cautious one. Although there is some improvement and a growth in understanding for all concerned that suggests hope for the future, McAlester is (thankfully) too honest to contrive an unequivocally happy ending as a sop to his audience. What he leaves us with, instead, is a humane, moving (and occasionally darkly humorous) story of pain, struggle and finally, if not catharsis, then at least the possibility of a tentative new beginning. And of course the music’s great too…

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2005
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Documentary about troubled cult musician Roky Erickson.
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Director: Keven McAlester

Writer: Keven McAlester

Starring: Roky Erickson and family, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore

Year: 2005

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US


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