High and Dry

An upcoming film chronicles the last couple of decades in the Tucson music scene

There's been a nearly unfathomable number of movies made about rock music in the past, most of whose existence was easily justified.

Films about specific significant cultural events, like Woodstock or Monterey Pop, appealed to those who missed the boat in attending--as much as those who actually attended--the festivals after which they were named. There have been films that focused on a particular artist--glimpse D.A. Pennebaker's study of Bob Dylan's first foray into Europe in Don't Look Back, or Gimme Shelter, which documented the Rolling Stones' performance at Altamont Speedway. Hell, even specific towns' music scenes have been documented, via Hype!, which focused on the grunge explosion in Seattle, and Athens, GA: Inside/Out, which provided a microscopic view into the bands--some internationally famous (R.E.M., for example), some unknown to all but locals--birthed by what most consider to be a relatively sleepy, small college town.

What all these films have in common is that they had a built-in audience upon their release. This is a statement not so easy to make about High and Dry, a documentary film about Tucson's music scene during a roughly 20-year period, currently being made by Los Angeles resident and former Tucsonan Michael Toubassi. The ambitious film, already 4 1/2 years in the making, is a labor of love that Toubassi hopes will translate to a wider audience.

Toubassi, who was born in Chicago but moved around a lot as a kid, settled in Arizona in 1987, when his family moved to Phoenix. In 1990, he moved to Tucson to study media arts and communications at the UA.

"I knew in high school about the Gin Blossoms, and I knew about the Sidewinders," Toubassi says, "but there was a point where I realized that music isn't just the records that you buy at the store, or what your sister's listening to, or what's on the top radio station. ... When I got to Tucson, I realized that there were ... all these bands that weren't on major labels that you had to be involved with to know."

He became involved in extracurriculars that involved local music. He was an assistant to, and later chaired, Eat to the Beat, a daily showcase for local and touring acts offered free of charge to UA students during the hours. Along the way, he met a lot of local bands, and he managed a few of them, at their request. He worked at KAMP, the UA's low-wattage radio station; worked for a couple local labels; and later, did A&R for Island and MCA.

But, in 1994--still a student but with an eye to the light at the end of the tunnel--he and his friend, Anthony Runfola, established a not-for-profit organization called Upstairs Film and Stage, as a vehicle for their artistic-minded friends to produce short films and stage theatrical productions. (These days, Upstairs encompasses the Southwest, with offices in Tucson, Phoenix and L.A.) And, for a six-month period starting in 1998, Toubassi hosted Multimedia Mondays at Club Congress, a series of short films by regional filmmakers followed by performances by local and national bands.

In 1999, Toubassi--feeling like he "had done what I could in Tucson to that point"--moved to Los Angeles to gain greater access to jobs in both the film and music industries. Not long after his arrival the dot-com boom went bust, and jobs were hard to come by. Still, he managed to find work at Interscope Records and EMI Music Publishing.

It took being outside of Tucson for the idea for High and Dry, which is being produced under the Upstairs banner, to come to him.

"It's hard when you're in the scene, and you're doing things for the scene, to have a perspective on it," he says. "When I was living there, I was constantly trying to be a part of what was happening. And once you're part of it, it's hard to have a kind of perspective and to look at it as an outsider, because you're inside of it. ... So now, I can have a different role for the scene, and I think that's the role I've actually settled into and become--sort of the Tucson music historian or archivist of sorts."

But wasn't he worried that the potential audience--for a film about a music scene that isn't on most people's cultural radar--would be rather small?

"The main reason why I decided to do it," says Toubassi, "was I wanted to share and let people around the country know about what a great scene and what great music (there is here). A lot of people know about the bands from Tucson, but they don't know they're from Tucson. They may have heard of Doo Rag, and they may know who the Supersuckers are; they know who Giant Sand is, but they don't necessarily know they're from Tucson.

"The impetus was basically to share, for people to learn. I think documentaries are a place for people to learn about something, and I wanted people to learn what Tucson music is, to bring that to the public."

The original scope for High and Dry was much smaller than what it's become since work on the film began, the consequence of working a bit differently than most documentarians. Toubassi spent six months in pre-production, starting in late 1999.

"I got together the people who would help me execute the film. Most film people kind of write a script for a documentary, basing it on that they know, exactly what they want the film to be about, and they're filling in the details that surround that. For me, I let the film be more of a way for me to explore and learn, to confirm the stuff I already knew about the history of Tucson (music), but at the same time, to get people to tell me their stories and go really into depth on it."

Toubassi's original intention was to document a 10-year span of local music, from 1985 to 1995.

"I had a list of clubs that broke down the general time that those clubs existed," he says, "as well as a list of people that I knew were part of the scene and what bands they were in, what labels they were on, or what independent affiliations they had ... and as I interviewed those people they would tell me about other people that I either knew or didn't know. ... It kind of spiderwebbed and grew into what was about 80-plus interviews.

"... I had been there from '90 to '95, and I knew that part of the scene pretty well. And I knew enough people from '85 to '90 that I thought, 'OK, I can handle this.' But the more people I talked to, Pearl's Hurricane kept coming up, Choo-Choo's, Night Train, Fourth Avenue, Giant Sandworms, all these other things kept coming up, and the scope of the film basically grew."

By the time principal footage for the film had been shot, in March 2003, Toubassi and several cinematographers had culled about 120 hours of footage of interviews and live performances filmed not only in Tucson, but in Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix and New York City--a total of seven or eight cities, says Toubassi. And the 10-year span being covered had become roughly 20 years, from 1979 to what Toubassi calls "'the recent present."

"Some like to say '99, but I like to say 'the recent present,' because it's not like we shut the door at '99, but the main content comes up to that time," he says.

As such, the film begins with bands like The Pedestrians (widely acknowledged as Tucson's first punk band), The Surfers and The Pills; winds its way through Giant Sandworms (later Giant Sand), the Sidewinders (later the Sand Rubies), Al Perry, the Supersuckers, the River Roses, Doo Rag and Bob Log III, Bloat Records, and Machines of Loving Grace; and winds down in the era that spawned Shoebomb and Fourkiller Flats.

"And each of those bands has a different story of their time in Tucson," Toubassi says.

Though footage is still being shot, Toubassi and crew have been in the post-production stage since April 2003. This mostly involves editing and collecting archival materials to use in the film. And then there's been the difficult task of raising money to make the film in the first place, an endeavor which wasn't helped by the fact that Toubassi sent out a request for donations on Sept. 10, 2001.

"I'm still having trouble finding support, to get financial contributions from people to support the documentary," Toubassi says. "I've applied for a couple different grants and wasn't able to get them ... so, the financial burden of this feature has been on my shoulders."

In order to raise funding, Toubassi has established a PayPal account on the film's Web site, www.highanddrymovie.com, where interested parties can donate. They can view a 90-second trailer for the film there, as well.

As for whether the documentary will find an audience outside of Tucson, Toubassi is optimistic, because the film addresses some universal themes in the music industry.

"High and Dry is both an observation, historically speaking, and at the same time, (it has) scenes that apply to being a working band in the music industry; what happens to bands dealing with independent labels, major labels, clubs, touring--it encompasses a lot of what bands have to go through and what they learn."

As for when the film will be completed, Toubassi doesn't have a concrete answer.

"It's kind of like painting a picture," he says. "It's hard to say exactly when it's going to be perfect and ready to go, or to be exactly how we want it. We want the film to be the best that it can be; we want the stories and what people see on the screen to be interesting not only for people in Tucson, but everywhere. So, we'll get it done as soon as we can, but I don't have an exact date that I can say, 'This is when it's going to be released.'

"The fall is what we're anticipating. We want to go to a good amount of festivals and a couple film markets, and we'd like to get distribution in music markets and. hopefully, a theatrical release. That's our goal. The more people who see High and Dry, the better for us, for the town, for the bands. It's a win-win situation. We just hope we can find a company that can get it out, at least for a small theatrical run and good DVD distribution."

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