Published Jul 15, 2020"A troubled girl is perfect for me because / Even diamonds are full of flaws and / It doesn't matter if you're falling apart / I'm just looking for someone with a beautiful heart" are some of the lyrics that emerge behind the warm and fuzzy guitar tones of "You Don't Know Crazy," a song by 24-year-old Indigenous punk musician Jesse Jams. Bits of "You Don't Know Crazy," as well as some of Jams's other songs — including "(It's Not Fun to Stay at the) YMCA" and "Andy's got a Jam Jar Up his Butthole" — can be heard in the short film Jesse Jams, which screened at the Calgary Underground Film Festival's 2020 online edition.
Watching the 15-minute short about Jesse and his Edmonton-based band Jesse Jams and the Flams, feels like meeting him after a gig and reading through the liner notes of his tape with him. Although we only get to hear bits and pieces of his songs, the short film, which was featured as a Vimeo Staff Pick in June and ranked up 20K plays (and is being streamed for free on their platform to this day — see below), is a crash course into Jams as a person and a musician. It's a small, bright window into his world and the ways in which he has been able to ground his often chaotic life through music.
The film is structured around Jams and the Flams as they ramp up to play Interstellar Rodeo, a festival in Edmonton. They had been booked the year before, but halfway through their set, a storm hit the stage and they had to pull the plug. In the days leading up to their second take at Interstellar, the documentary accompanies Jams on seemingly everyday tasks — trying out guitars at a music shop, shopping for shoes, and paying a visit to his grandfather. Jams's voiceover brings us through his life journey up to the point where we are seeing him, detailing his long list of psychological diagnoses and giving us just a glimpse into the multiple different places he found himself in after entering the foster care system. He had moved a staggering 18 times since his 18th birthday, as of the filming.
As an Indigenous and transgender person, Jams has struggled with navigating these multiple systems and the many definitions of Jams's identity that have come with them. After watching shots of Jams try out multiple different guitars cut together in quick succession while he names each of his diagnoses, seeing Jams interact with his band and playing his genre of "mumble punk" (with songs that are sometimes simply a description of what he did in a given day or week), Jams's connection to music becomes life-affirming. Through writing music and playing with his band, Jams is able to find self-expression for his world, working outside of the constraints assigned to him by doctors, social workers and society at large.
The short itself is shot with the warmth and lo-fi qualities of a film camera and brings this vintage, intimate aesthetic into the story, leaving the audience feeling personally touched by Jesse's voice in a world that often does not make space for stories such as his.
My only real criticism is that the short film is, well, not long enough. But luckily, when the short ends, you can listen to Jesse Jams and the Flams on Spotify and Bandcamp to your heart's desire.