While chronicling the exploits of Christopher Scum and his self-anointed "white-trash psycho rock" band, the Dirty Works, Worldstorm Arts Lab's long-awaited Rebel Scum documentary also shows a subterranean Knoxville that most residents are unaware of, and would probably prefer not knowing about. The Knoxville of Rebel Scum is populated by the angry, the self-destructive, the insane, and the addicted, a subaltern group of lost and rejected souls who feel they never had a voice in society. Rebel Scum is that group's bestial wail, and Christopher Scum serves as their personification and martyr—a patron saint of lost causes.
It's something of a dark miracle that the film was even made. Christopher Scum, aka Chris Andrews, had garnered infamy as a fringe figure of Knoxville's music scene, a loose cannon known more for hell-raising, intoxication, running afoul of the law, and onstage self-mutilation than for his music. Fellow band members Steven Crime, B. Riot, and Shaggy were on similar, albeit less extreme trajectories. (Shaggy left the group as the movie was being made.) Atlanta-based film director Video Rahim first encountered the Dirty Works in 2005 while making a video for Dropsonic, a popular Atlanta band that the Dirty Works were opening for in, of all places, Morristown. At the time, the Dirty Works were going nowhere fast.
"I'd been shooting bands like Fall Out Boy and the Killers, and those bands all know what to say when the camera comes on," Rahim says. "In contrast, here's Steven and Chris, and they were crazy like they were straight out of Jackass. They just seemed really unique and honest and interesting."
"I just couldn't believe the footage at first," says producer Francis Percarpio. "I knew there was a story, I just didn't know what it was. So I committed six months' worth of resources to get into this world as deeply as we could. And that six months turned into two years of filming."
Unearthing the world of the Dirty Works, the filmmakers tapped into a mother lode of dysfunction: Scum was enrolled in a methadone program and had a tenuous grasp of reality; guitarist Steven Crime was battling alcoholism and facing a month's jail time for DUI, which he served during the filming; and drummer B. Riot was struggling to keep the band together. And the friends and family in the band's orbit were likewise damaged.
"The band was notified from day one that they would have absolutely zero editorial control—that they were not actors, so they would not be paid," Percarpio says.
The resulting depictions aren't always flattering. Scum is particularly forthcoming, revealing a history of childhood abuse, addiction, and psychological problems. Rebel Scum ushers in a host of ethical questions. Almost everyone depicted in the film is addicted or psychologically damaged, or both. Sometimes it seems as if they're competing to see who can be more excessive, more antisocial, more self-destructive; some of their behavior in the movie flouts both social convention and legality.
Ultimately, though, Rebel Scum is Christopher Scum's story, the story of a painful life fraught with damages. And as crazy as that story might be, it's true. Throughout all of his trials, his dogged determination is, in its way, inspiring, even life-affirming.
Percarpio is adamant that the film isn't exploitative.
"No one was coaxed into doing anything they did not want to do," Percarpio says. "Christopher Scum, this is what he's worked for—this is the public eye that he's always wanted. This guy's baring his soul, no holds barred whatsoever. And I think the one thing the viewer should feel for him by the end of the film is empathy. We go further than the average rock documentary: We meet his parents, we meet his tormentors, we dig deep into this guy's psyche. So you might be able to say that you're suffering through the film with him.
"The dynamic of the band in context with the city of Knoxville, being in the heart of the Bible Belt, that's interesting. Rebel Scum is a character study, and the music is a background. The movie is about people; the band is just a vehicle to get us there."
And that vehicle has certainly been high-maintenance. Percarpio and Rahim—already well-known for producing material for Sean "Puffy" Combs' Sean Jean brand as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like Usher, Ciara, Goodie Mob, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def and corporate clients such as TIAA Cref and Scripps Networks—devoted more than two years and $125,000 to the project.
"We worked our tails off doing commercials, corporate videos, whatever, so we could get the money to do this," Percarpio says. "We shot it on film and had to answer only to ourselves. It's a truly independent film."
Shooting the film entailed some danger. The camera crew was once threatened at gunpoint, and the subjects were often violent and intoxicated. Several crew members quit in the process of filmmaking. But Percarpio and Rahim persevered because they felt the film was potentially an underground classic. The version to be shown in Knoxville is the second edit. As yet, a distributor has not been found.
"We just finished the recut within the last 30 days," Percarpio says. "So obviously we're just now talking to film agents. Finding an agent that you can trust is a catch-22—an agent wants you to be known before they'll actually represent you, and if no one represents you, you're unknown. So we don't have a distribution deal. This is our first public showing of the piece ever. We're calling it a sneak preview because we want to hold off and do a premiere in New York or at a festival, perhaps."
Private showings of Rebel Scum have proven divisive for audiences, at best, according to the producers.
"It seems like older people have a harder time with the film," Rahim says. "They just had a very hard time dealing with these people and the way they live their lives. We thought everybody would really like Christopher Scum. We thought he was a cuddly, teddy bear-type character. The first time I showed it to my parents they didn't like it. They thought it was scary, they couldn't find any reason to like the people, there was nothing appealing about it for them. My parents couldn't understand why anybody would want to watch it, and they asked me why I would make a movie about these people, and was I crazy? That was a big reality check for me, to realize that this film has a very specific audience."
"I showed it to my mother and her reaction to it was, ‘Oh my god!' adds Percarpio. "But she said she wanted to see it again. Was she disturbed by it? Absolutely. The funny thing is that she's convinced it's going to be a monster hit."
Percarpio says that Christopher Scum's artistry and enduring drive is what makes him most compelling as Rebel Scum's primary subject. The producer says that in his own life he faced similar challenges, hence Scum's appeal.
"We are filmmakers first but we are both also fans," says Percarpio. "We're huge fans of Chris' lyrics. They're alternately tragic, humorous, engaging, empathetic. They're the work of a true American original, and that's what Christopher Scum is to me."