Jawbreaker documentary sincerely retells story of band that never was

Matt Campbell

If you know the band, you know the story. At what seemed to be the peak of their prime, the New York City to West Bay San Francisco transplants of Jawbreaker suffered a catastrophic fall from grace that ultimately ended the band and left the trio bitter and estranged.

While each member went off to pursue different outlets, the ghost of Jawbreaker haunted fans for years. In 2017, Jawbreaker made their triumphant return to Chicago, Illinois, to headline Riot Fest after 21 years of separation to a crowd of thousands who traveled from all corners of the world to watch a band that swore they would never play together again. Ahead of the Riot Fest show, a long-in-the-works documentary about the band was released in select theaters that tells a different story of Jawbreaker’s career and untimely demise. Now available to the public online, “Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker” is a raw and poignant film that tells the tale of the band that never was.

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When Jawbreaker signed to Geffen Records in 1995, the punk-rock community lost a band that they’d held close for years. Slated to be the next Green Day, their first major-label debut “Dear You” was released Sept. 12, 1995, and sold less than 100,000 copies. The decision to sign to a major label betrayed an entire community who retaliated by buying concert tickets to face away from the band during performances in protest and not buying the record. “Dear You” quickly became a cult classic. “Don’t Break Down” starts from the beginning when long-time high school friends Blake Schwarzenbach (guitar, vocals) and Adam Pfahler (drums) formed the band with bassist Chris Bauermeister in the late 1980s.

The band moved to Los Angeles and released their first full-length album, “Unfun,” in 1990. After the release of “Unfun,” the band moved to San Francisco, where the punk-rock scene was flourishing with bands like Green Day quickly gaining success. Jawbreaker released “Bivouac,” their second full-length record in 1992. “Bivouac” was a more abstract album compared to the pop nature of “Unfun,” incorporating darker lyrics and a more experimental aesthetic that would carry over into the band’s future releases. With tensions in the band growing, Jawbreaker embarked on a European tour later that year, on which lead singer and guitarist Schwarzenbach was taken away from the tour to the hospital to have a polyp removed from his throat.

“Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Google Play with more services coming soon.

Upon returning to the United States in 1993, Jawbreaker began working on their third album. In the film, Schwarzenbach recalls being heavily inspired by the recordings of Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen, an influence that would prove to be integral to Jawbreaker’s witty and personal lyrics. They recorded their third album, “24 Hour Revenge Therapy,” with Steve Albini in Chicago. Later that year, Jawbreaker was asked to open Nirvana’s tour in support of “In Utero.” “24 Hour Revenge Therapy” was released in February of 1994 to great local and commercial acclaim. Quickly, and partially due to the overwhelming success of Bay Area co-punkers Green Day, Jawbreaker began receiving offers from major record labels looking for the next big thing to take punk music to the mainstream. What resulted was a label contract from DGC Records and a $1 million advance to produce their next record, “Dear You.” Produced by Rob Cavallo (who also produced Green Day’s major-label debut “Dookie”), “Dear You” had a foreign slickness to it with more production quality and less of the quirks that made Jawbreaker darlings in the punk-rock scene. With a major-label contract and a more-produced and slick record, Jawbreaker set out on their 1996 tour in support of the record to an overwhelmingly negative audience reaction. Jawbreaker disbanded later in the year following a fistfight between Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister, leaving fans with mixed emotions and little closure.

While “Don’t Break Down” is a thorough retelling of Jawbreaker’s career, it exceeds in telling the story through the words of the band. In a collection of interviews, tour footage and photographs, audiences are able to hear the story of the band from the band. There is a sense of vulnerability as the film plays out. This is displayed in the “plot” of the film that sees Schwarzenbach, Pfahler and Bauermeister in a recording studio, and the same room as one another, for the first time in years. Each member speaks openly and honestly about their experiences in the band, allowing the audience to watch the emotional and sometimes difficult making of the peace between the three members. The film closes with the band playing “Condition Oakland,” a fan favorite, in the studio’s live room.

For many Jawbreaker fans, this is the closure they’ve been waiting for. For other fans, it is a reminder that Jawbreaker’s betrayal cannot be forgiven. “Don’t Break Down” serves both masters. The film is an emotional, visceral and raw retelling of the story of Jawbreaker from the band’s experiences and the experiences of those around them. Whether you love, hate, “have heard of” or don’t know Jawbreaker, “Don’t Break Down” is a story that resonates with fans and audiences alike.

Rating: 9/10

Matt Campbell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @mcampnh.