Tallgrass Film Festival Review – We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember: The Embarrassment

This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.

There are plenty of bands that don’t make it big. Happens every day, and it’s probably happened to at least a dozen or more of you that are reading this now. Decades ago, in the Midwestern city of Wichita, a band that was almost named “The Elastic Waistband” began belting out punk unlike anyone else and came right up to the edge of true national fame. They were applauded by music critics throughout the country that sometimes traveled specifically to hear them, and the fanbase was small but dedicated. After breaking up one of them moved to the Costa Rican rainforest and then disappeared.

They were The Embarrassment.

Only one album, Death Travels West, was released during the band’s lifetime (the rest have been retrospectives), but it’s a banger of a release and one that really captures some of the silliness of the band’s inherent style. Songs came about not from anger or open rage, but from the simple need to exist and be seen while still being based in the South of Kansas. Bill Groffier, Brent Geissman, John Nichols, and Ron Klaus were a unique movement that stood out against the grain during the late 70s and early 80s. Songs belted out at wild concerts about patio furniture and driving around wishing you could have sex instead drew in crowds of other frustrated individuals that could vent with them.

The documentary itself relies heavily on the humor and charm of its subjects to carry the narrative forward. Being a forgotten treasure is something most aren’t aware they can be, so the befuddled attitudes of the aging rockers plays as sweet instead of cocky like it could have. Portioned out segments of the group practicing (and aggressively messing up) their old songs seems sweeter than even that of their youth.

But there are moments that I wish had been included in the film. The entirety of the presentation is set around looking back on the memory of near-greatness, but the band has been back together before. 2008 saw them play an acoustic set at Barleycorn’s in Wichita, all band members onstage (except Ron Klaus, who is still missing in the Costa Rican jungle). Another in 2006, played at The Roadhouse, saw not only The Embarrassment but other bands from the era come together to play a revival. These events are ones I wish had been included as they are crucial to the memory of a band thought of as a hidden treasure.

Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau called them a “great lost American band,” and I would struggle to disagree. The Embarrassment is a messy, aggressive, sweet group of boys that spend an entire documentary wondering if they should have eaten their pride and left Wichita in order to achieve greatness. That question has an obvious answer, but Daniel Fetherston and Danny Szlauderbach’s documentary is too enamored with the group’s music to dwell on that. We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember is a loving look at a band an an era that has been long lost to the public conscience. It’s a tad cloying, but sometimes you’re in the mood for something sweet.

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