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The Icarus Line Must Die Shows the Dark Purgatory of a Cult Rock Band That Never Gave Up

In the early 2000s, there was no lack of scrappy, upstart garage-rock bands pledging fealty to the Stooges—which, for many, just meant recycling some Raw Power riffs and waiting for the NME to call. But no group came as close to capturing Iggy and co.’s uncanny mix of sinister swagger, crowd-baiting provocation, and apocalyptic nihilism as the Icarus Line.

As the official house band for online shit disturbers Buddyhead.com, the Icarus Line put that website’s proudly antagonistic, hipster-hating philosophy into action through a potent combination of caterwauling noise punk and diseased psychedelia, wrapped up in striking red and black attire that made the group look like altar boys in the Church of Satan. In true Stooges fashion, the Icarus Line failed to translate their infamy into actual fame—their 2004 major-label debut for V2, Penance Soiree, supposedly barely cracked the five-digits mark in sales. The closest the band came to a smash hit was when, during a SXSW performance at a Hard Rock Cafe, guitarist Aaron North thrust a mic stand into a glass display case containing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar.

But unlike the Stooges, the Icarus Line soldiered on. With Penance Soiree, the band had made a bold aesthetic leap from post-hardcore brats to steely scuzz-rock futurists, a vision that frontman Joe Cardamone remained faithful to even after the 2005 departure of North, his natural foil in the group. Each Icarus Line record from there on out may have featured different lineups and increasingly obscure label logos, but Cardamone continued to refine the band’s nihilistic noise with more artful and epic gestures, transforming the band into a decadent L.A. answer to the Bad Seeds.

The Icarus Line’s most recent album, All Things Under Heaven, was released in October 2015—but it wasn’t until two years later that it became clear it would be their last. While doing promo for his avant-pop solo project, Holy War, Cardamone confirmed he had surreptitiously ended the band. The main reason: Guitarist Alvin DeGuzman, the lone member who’d stuck by Cardamone, had been diagnosed with bone cancer, eventually passing away in October 2017. For a band that had initially arrived on the scene with such anarchic, attention-seizing gusto, the Icarus Line were laid to rest with an uncharacteristic quiet dignity.

However, a new film gives this proudly insolent act the belated ceremonial suicide it deserves.

In spirit, The Icarus Line Must Die follows in the tradition of music documentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil: it’s a stark portrait of a band mired in a career nadir, looking not so much for a big break as much as a lifeline to keep the dream alive. Dejected to the point of numbness, Cardamone is seen fielding endless form-email rejections from labels, unloading gear at his local pawn shop, and pleading with bandmates not to jump ship. He ignores phone calls from the Cult’s management after an opening gig for the veteran British rockers turned into an exercise in noise terrorism—typical for a group with a history of sabotaging any high-profile opportunity. And, in the film’s most bittersweet scene, Cardamone visits with an ailing DeGuzman, who has taken up residency on his parents’ living-room pull-out couch and using a walker while undergoing treatment for his cancer, but hasn’t lost his dry sense of humor.

Though The Icarus Line Must Die hits all the emotional notes of the typical underdog rock doc, it differs in one major way—it’s not actually a documentary. Part Richard Linklater philosophical gab-fest, part Richard Kern lo-fi cult flick, the black-and-white film (co-written by Cardamone with director Michael Grodner) presents a fictionalized account of this troubled band’s dying days. But while it’s rife with shots of Cardamone cruising the streets of L.A in his Cadillac, looking like the bastard child of Nick Cave and X’s John Doe, the film is refreshingly bereft of the self mythologization that often results when a band makes a movie about itself. More screen time is given to performances from Cardamone’s friends—from the Pink Mountaintops to Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy to L.A. hardcore hell-raisers Retox—than to his own band. And we get glimpses of the domestic rituals that keep Cardamone grounded when he’s not wreaking havoc onstage: the daily dog feedings; the fishing trips on the pier; the post-dinner slow dances in the kitchen with his partner Charlotte (playing herself).

The sharper the film diverges from Cardamone’s day-to-day reality, the closer we get to the Icarus Line’s essential truths. Throughout the movie, Cardamone receives sage-advice pep talks from seasoned iconoclasts like Keith Morris and Permanent Midnight author Jerry Stahl—but we also see how the singer’s adherence to punk principles has aggravated his precarious situation. Cardamone’s de facto day job is running his own studio, but most of his clients are friends’ bands that he records for free. At the behest of a music-industry friend, Cardamone takes a potentially lucrative gig producing a rising indie-pop act made up of “spoiled rich cunts” who spend most of their studio time on their smartphones. Unable to stomach their entitled attitude, he bails on the job—and, presumably, the possibility of ever making a steady living as a producer.

Later, Ariel Pink turns up in a gonzo cameo as Ron, a fictional ex-band member whose manic disposition and troubled backstory unsubtly draw parallels to North, who left the Icarus Line to join Nine Inch Nails before descending into his own downward spiral. In the film, Ron resurfaces after a 10-year absence to ask for his job back, a prospect Cardamone is willing to entertain until old dysfunctions rear their ugly heads. Whether or not that’s the way things actually went down in real life, Ron’s appearance in the film suggests the estrangement from North left a sizable emotional wound from which Cardamone and the Icarus Line never fully recovered. (“You need me,” Ron implores. “Right now, it’s the fuckin’ Joe Cardamone solo revue—it’s not the Icarus Line.”)

More than just dramatizing the real ways in which the band burned bridges, The Icarus Line Must Die posits that one of the many enemies they made wants to see Cardamone dead. In between all his hustling to keep the band alive, the singer receives recurring death threats by text message from an unidentified stalker—a narrative device that lends this otherwise loosely structured film the tense feel of a crime thriller. But the question of whether Cardamone will get whacked serves as a MacGuffin for the film’s existential inquiries: At what point does an artist’s persistence of vision surrender to the practical necessities of putting food on the table? How much misery must even the most committed punk-rock foot soldier endure before waving the white flag? The death we’re bracing for in the film isn’t so much that of Cardamone himself as that of his will to carry on.

Rock history has tended to romanticize the outsiders who crashed and burned too soon, or the cagey veterans who’ve stuck to their guns. The Icarus Line Must Die is the tombstone for a band that stalled out on the long journey between those two stations—too resilient to reap the glories of a premature death, but too weary to make it to their elder-statesmen years. A great deal of the Stooges’ myth was tied up in the notion that they were utterly despised in their day; the fact that Iggy was pelted with ice cubes and bottles by the hostile crowd captured on Metallic K.O. is as integral to their story as “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But The Icarus Line Must Die forces viewers to stew in the day-to-day drudgery of an unloved band trapped in that purgatory period where notoriety has yet to harden into legend, and may never will.

Late in the film, we see the Icarus Line performing the song “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul” at L.A. club the Echoplex. It’s a snapshot of Cardamone’s commanding presence as a frontman, all demonic theatricality and rabid-dog abandon. And it’s the moment in the film where you start to think that maybe all the hardship is worth enduring in order to keep something this powerful alive. At the very least, it’s proof this band deserves to be remembered for something more than just wanton acts of onstage vandalism and inspiring My Chemical Romance’s sartorial direction.

But even the fleeting moments of triumph for this band are appended with a humbling asterisk. A shot of the Echoplex marquee flashes: After nearly two decades in the game, the Icarus Line’s big hometown headlining gig was relegated to a Monday night.


After making the film festival rounds, “The Icarus Line Must Die” is out now via on-demand services like iTunes and Amazon.

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