Review by William Ham
Punk nearly died in Seattle; it only seems appropriate that it should be saved there, too. Ryan Worsley’s Razing the Bar: A Documentary About the Funhouse, a labor of love about a labor of love, ends in tragedy as love stories tend to do; in the end, the Seattle dive bar/punk club that serves as its subject gets cut down in its prime, the victim of forces beyond its control. But ultimately, its death is far less significant than its life, as unlikely as its demise was foreordained. In the end, it may be the most uplifting film you’ll see all year, even when it’s throwing up its hands and crying out, “What good will it profit a city, if it shall gain a seven-story condo complex, and lose its own soul?”
With a high-energy mixture of concert footage, photo montage and interviews with its performers, patrons and employees, Worsley whips up a filmic action painting of the rude, raucous but celebratory spirit that bubbled and spattered all over a heretofore nondescript aluminum cuboid at 260 5th Avenue North, noteworthy only in that it stood its funky, low-rent ground there since 1930 while the expensive expanse of Seattle Center sprung up and gradually closed in around it. From 2003 until 2012, the Funhouse managed to do what no one – including its owner, Bobby Kuckelberg – thought possible: gather up the dissipated energies and enthusiasms of punk, or more specifically the regional variant thereof known for the ill-hidden dose of warmth within its typical crudity and noisiness before accidentally catching on and shriveling under the spotlight, and give it a venue to strengthen and thrive again. Re-branding the Space Needle and expecting the ’62 World’s Fair to break out again would seem more likely.
And yet it happened, thanks in no small part to two additions quickly established its personality and gave it its heart and soul. One was the creepy clown head hoisted to the roof “to scare off the people that shouldn’t be there and to entice people that wanted to be there,” in his words. The other, painted in such glowing terms by nearly every interviewee you half-expect him to walk to work across Puget Sound, was house booker and eventual co-owner Brian Foss.
Foss is clearly the hero of this tale; his scrupulous ethics and boundless enthusiasm run so counter to the standard adversarial club owner-performer dynamic that even the most hardened scene veterans speak of him with a trace of childlike awe. (At one point, a musician waves $300 at the camera, almost stunned to have gotten her promised cut from the door.) And his belief in the long-lost core values of punk as a venue for creative expression, impervious to commerce or competition, over the black-leather-straitjacket orthodoxy that trudges joylessly under its name nowadays compelled him to give the stage to dancers, performance artists and genre-jumping combos unwelcome in other clubs, as well as some inspired to take to the stage for the first time, emboldened by his den mother/Zen master demeanor and his punk koan and accidental motto: “embrace failure.”
Which makes the Funhouse’s ultimate fate – closed for good nine years to the day of its birth and crushed by the prerogatives of gentrification – not quite the tragedy it might have been. A beloved venue is gone, true. But a venue is just a venue. The spirit that animated the funky little dive at the base of Queen Anne Hill remains at large, from the thriving cabaret, burlesque and roller derby scenes first exposed within those walls to a scrappy young documentarian who surmounted her limited resources and committed the short but triumphant life of her favorite club to film for a mere $8000, from whence it should continue to inspire for years to come. The creepy clown head will rise again.
[Razing the Bar screens at 7:00pm on Oct 16 at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park; director Ryan Worsley will be in attendance. click here for tickets. Also available to rent or buy via Vimeo On Demand – https://vimeo.com/ondemand/razingthebar]