We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Teenbeat Records has released a lot of great music, but it has never been content to only release music. Over the last 34 years, the venerable indie label, which was founded in 1984 in Arlington, has assigned catalog numbers to over 500 items. Records, certainly, but also matchbooks, banquets, business agreements, the use of Flin Flon’s song “Floods” as theme music for Anderson Cooper 360, and a house. However, Amateur on Plastic—designated Teenbeat 564—will be the label’s first feature length film. Directed by label founder Mark Robinson, the documentary chronicles the life of Butch Willis, an eccentric D.C. performer and songwriter who self-released two bizarro records during the early ’80s with his backing band, The Rocks, and who continued to put out music throughout the ’90s via Teenbeat.
Willis, now 64, was not a conventional musician and Amateur is hardly a conventional rock doc. Assembled from public-access appearances, home videos, and trippy VHS ephemera, it’s surreal and hypnagogic. There are barely any talking head-style interviews and Willis—who is a bit tangent prone—is the film’s sole narrator. The wild concert footage is authentic, but the convincingly anodyne TV interviews are staged. It’s funny, but also tender and sad.
The film took Robinson—who started the project with little in the way of movie making experience—nearly a decade to complete. “His music is so amazing and he never really got that many people to listen to it,” explains the director, who grew up in Arlington, but now resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The idea was just to bring more attention to him. And also just to show all that amazing footage.”
Raised in suburban Maryland, Willis started making music during the late ’70s while sharing a Takoma Park apartment with Root Boy Slim, a famed gonzo D.C.-area musician who wrote songs like “Boogie ’Till You Puke.” “He hired Root Boy’s band to be his backing band in the studio,” Robinson explains. “And he paid them and paid the studio bill and he put out his first album in 1983 on his own label, Love Records.”
Later, Joe’s Record Paradise owner Joe Lee formed a more devoted group for Willis out of regular customers, including guitarist Dean Evangelista, bassist Jon Curlin, and “throat guitarist” Al Breon. This version of The Rocks would record Willis’ classic second album, Forthcomings, and would also back the singer on the first (and final) episode of Forestville Rocks, a cable-access show concocted by Heavy Metal Parking Lot creators Jeff Krulik and John Heyn.
To put things mildly, The Rocks were pretty weird. Breon made animalistic staccato whelps by tapping his hand against his trachea while a mullet-clad and sunglasses-sporting Willis belted lyrics like, “Drugs will do it to ya, rock! rock! rock! / Make you feel spicy / Make you feel icy / Make you want an ice cream cone / Make you wanna shovel for your own,” in a thick Maryland accent.
Robinson first saw the group in 1985, when they opened for Evangelista’s band No Trend at a D.C. club called Friendship Station. “It was—as much as I can remember about it—one of those moments where you’re just thinking, ‘What is going on? My brain can’t comprehend what’s going on on stage,’” he recalls. “The music was great. Just the oddness of it. I don’t know if Butch was trying to be odd, but the band that was put together for him was definitely odd in certain respects and the whole thing really gelled well musically.”
They became personally acquainted a few years later, when Robinson saw the group play a house show. “I think it was on Gist Street in the basement,” says Robinson, who by then had his own band, Unrest. “There was an open microphone and for whatever reason I just walked up and I started singing ‘The Garden Outside’ with him. I think that was in ’87 or ’88. And that’s where I met him.”
Not long after that, Robinson began releasing Willis’ music on Teenbeat, a relationship that would continue until the early ’00s when the singer’s mental health issues lead them to fall out of touch. Willis currently lives in public housing in Gaithersburg and the two have since reconnected.
In 2007, Robinson had the idea to make a documentary on Willis. He shot a number of one-on-one interviews, but hit a wall. “I finished all of these interviews and just thought, ‘I do not know how to make a movie. How do I put all of this together?’” says Robinson. “So it just kind of sat for a while.”
Krulik—who briefly “managed” Willis during the ’80s and who provided much of the archival footage used in the film—urged Robinson to keep trying and ultimately worked to pair him up with two local filmmakers, Todd Rohal and Paul Lovelace, who would serve as editors. Krulik and Robinson handed off the footage and waited. And waited. “[Todd and Paul] were living their lives, doing other projects,” Robinson says. “And then almost two years ago, Krulik wrote to them and said, ‘How’s it coming along?’ and they pretty much said, ‘we’re not really doing that.’ So then Jeff said ‘Mark, I think you should get back on this thing.’”
Krulik, however, credits Robinson with pushing Amateur across the finish line. “Mark just decided on his own that he had to get back on track and make this thing happen,” the filmmaker says. “It was his own volition that he had to make the sacrifices to get this ready for prime time. I kept encouraging him. He just needed time.”
In the interim, Robinson had tightened up his editing skills by making short films, which he posted on Teenbeat’s YouTube page. He also had an epiphany on how to handle the interview footage that he had collected: junk it. “At one point, somebody refused [an interview], because they had been a talking head in too many rock documentaries,” Robinson says. “And it got me thinking, ‘You’re right!’ You know, when you watch these movies it’s almost like you’re watching, ‘Hey look at this guy’s living room’ or ‘Hey look at this guy’s kitchen.’ So, I actually did not even use any of that except for the interviews with Butch.”
Once the movie was just Butch in his own words, it was a lot easier for Robinson to put together. The talking-head footage survives in a 10-minute companion short, which the director will screen alongside the film.
Amateur on Plastic is strange and funny and maintains the out-of-context outsider-art spirit of experiencing The Rocks via bootleg VHS tapes or YouTube clips. It showcases Willis’ work, but also the work of people who made equally compelling art out of Butch’s weirdness, like Krulik’s Forestville Rocks clip or the 60 Minutes-style interview footage that No Trend’s Jeff Mentges concocted for a class project. Both could go toe-to-toe with anything on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. However, Amateur doesn’t shy away from Willis’ mental health issues and darker moments. In video shot at shows during the ’90s and at Teenbeat’s annual banquets, there’s footage of fans singing along with Butch’s a capella performances, but you can also catch a few nervous glances. Late in the film, a few sequences document Willis living in squalid conditions.
The serious touch shouldn’t be a surprise. To Robinson and Krulik, Willis’ music had depth that extended beyond its sheer craziness. “Some people could look at all that and think it was a joke,” says Krulik, speaking about the Forestville Rocks footage. “I don’t and never did. I was totally sold.”
“During the ’90s, there as a mini-trend of outsider artists getting hip as ironic novelty stuff,” recalls D.C.-based music writer Marc Masters, who regularly attended Teenbeat events where Willis performed. “Butch’s music was definitely way better than that. Butch acted a little nutty, but he was a good songwriter. I think that maybe, in a weird way, if he had been just a novelty songwriter, he might have gotten more notoriety, but his music was more substantial than that.”
Robinson is more succinct on Willis: “I just think he’s a great American songwriter,” he says. “I just really love his music, I don’t know what to say.”
A screening of “Amateur on Plastic” will take place on Dec. 26 at Black Cat. 1811 14th St. NW. $10. 7:30 p.m.