There may have been louder or more nihilistic bands in the long history of Los Angeles rock music, but few groups as brashly and brazenly followed the spirit of punk like The Icarus Line did. The brainchild of Los Angeles native Joe Cardamone, the band reached an astonishing level of major label attention despite their best efforts to tear everything down around them. Icarus Line came up during the days when major labels found it worthwhile to sign experimental rock groups like At The Drive-In and Blood Brothers and linked up with major label V2 for their second album, the brilliant Penance Soiree. However, it failed to catch on as the music industry crumbled around them, resulting in them being dropped and never reaching the sort of commercial success of their like-minded peers.
It’s ironic that the title of a new film about the band is The Icarus Line Must Die. For one, the band has already been put to rest. And two, this is a band that survived everything, from the collapse of their label, to Cardamone’s struggles to maintain a steady lineup of professional non-using musicians, to the tragic illness and death of longtime member Alvin Deguzman. Directed by Michael Grodner, the semi-fictional film takes a look at the day-to-day life of Cardamone as he interacts with his wife (played by real-life partner Charlotte Cardamone), struggles to find a label for his new album, gives away too many pro-bono recording sessions for local bands like Retox and chats with friends and musicians like Annie Hardy and Keith Morris.
The Icarus Line that is portrayed in Michael Grodner’s new film is much more mature and focused on more than being as punk as possible. Nearly 15 years have gone by since Penance Soiree and Cardamone is a grown man that can’t simply tour most of the year. The subject matter delves deeply into the day-to-day realities of being a working musician—but is relatable for many creative professionals.
“For me, I wanted to make a film about a musician, but the movie is about an artist or a creative person,” Grodner said. “I’m not a musician, I’m a filmmaker, but I completely relate with the struggle that Joe is going through. Any creative person, someone who, an artist can relate with this struggle. Anytime anybody is putting themselves out there and creating stuff and then letting it go. Either people love it or they hate it or… It’s just, it’s a tough thing. You want to maintain your integrity and put out stuff that’s meaningful to you, but at the same time…there’s the other side of it, which is like, you have to eat, you have to put a roof over your head and how do you do that?”
Frank conversations between Charlotte and Joe are portrayed throughout the film, as she expresses the stress of making ends meet on their limited budget. Cardamone laughed when he explained that he was “egged on by the director” to be convinced to do these very realistic, well-done scenes between two real-life partners. “I would say Michael pushed me for it and I went along with it,” said Cardamone. “‘Cause I figured, if we’re gonna do this fuckin’ thing, I better just surrender to it.” While there are some tense moments between the couple, much of the film showcases their home life as a supportive space where the musician can escape the stress of running his studio on little-to-no pay, not to mention the literal death threats he receives regularly throughout the film.
Part of his ability to spend time with his wife, work in his studio and take long, contemplative rides around Los Angeles’ scenic, historic Eastside in The Icarus Line Must Die is because he’s begun winding down the relentless touring aspect of the band. “Yeah, it’s definitely been an evolution over the course of my life,” said Cardamone. “I don’t tour for large amounts of time like I used to. When you tour a lot, you’re not really capable of maintaining normal home life. Now that I only really tour when I want to, it’s a little bit easier to rectify that side of my existence.”
What is striking about the action is how authentic it feels, particularly from a group of actors without a great deal of experience on film. Much of this can be attributed to the loose writing. “What we did,” said Grodner. “Was we worked from a detailed outline. So, Joe and I collaborated on this outline. Really what I did was talk to Joe quite a bit to get stories from his experiences as the leader of The Icarus Line. I got a lot of stories from him and then molded that into a three-act structure… Every day of the shoot, I would give the person who’s acting that day beat sheets to look at that says, okay, this is what we need to cover in this scene. I’m also there behind the camera, coaching them along in a sense, making sure that they cover those particular beats in the story. But so much of it is improvised. We knew going in that we wanted to bring in really interesting characters and people that we knew that were just interesting people and let them just talk.”
It was very much a flow state type of thing,” said Hardy, who makes a series of appearances throughout the film. “I think that Travis Keller and Michael Grodner and maybe Joe, wrote out some kind of outline for the movie and maybe some scripted parts, but for us. For instance, the scene at my house, all we knew was that Joe was supposed to come over, invite me to the studio to record and tell me about these text messages he’s getting, so everything beyond that is just improvised. Yeah. At the party scene, he just said, ‘You’re gonna run into Joe for the first time and talk to him about how he should be making your record’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s not hard, this is what I do all the time!’ It’s literally most of the conversations I’ve had with Joe over the past five years, have been me trying to persuade him to go into the studio with me, and him complaining about money!”
Speaking of the studio, it’s featured prominently in the film. From cutting takes with some rich-kid indie-pop wannabes to make a few bucks or grinding it out for beer money with Retox, one of Los Angeles’ preeminent hardcore outfits, much of the action takes place in this small building in Burbank. “Well, I think I [started producing] out of necessity, you know?” Cardamone said about his studio. “I did it because I didn’t wanna have anyone ever be able to shut me down, so I learned how to do it to be able to always keep creating and not worry about getting anyone’s permission. I learned it through some mentors, through people I’d worked with over the course of The Icarus Line, like my buddy Mike Musmanno who engineered a lot of my records, he helped me a lot, and a few other close engineers. But to be honest, the only way you can learn that shit is by doing it.”
Even more realities of the struggle to maintain a full-time band are exposed throughout the film. Cardamone has a hell of a time maintaining band members, even proverbially “getting dumped” by a member of his band in front of a venue. Elsewhere, he has to fend off an ex-member “Ron” (a very well-disguised Ariel Pink), a man clearly still dealing with mental health issues, claiming he’s clean—only due to his Xanax and Adderall habit—who awkwardly asks back into The Icarus Line by bumming a ride from our protagonist.
“I pick musicians with my ears and with my bond,” said Cardamone. “So usually there was this element of a gang and all these people who are in it together, you know. All these people who want to be there, to a certain extent. No one was getting rich. I always felt sort of a loyalty to them to keep it going, especially Aaron because it was an important thing in his life, in both our lives, we started it together.” This sense of loyalty to the gang (and perhaps a little encouragement from Charlotte) results in Cardamone giving Ron a shot at joining The Icarus Line for a practice at his studio, which turns out to be a total disaster.
Besides Joe Cardamone and company, the biggest star of this film is the City of Los Angeles. “I was born here and raised here, so it becomes like an intrinsic part of you, wherever you grow up, right?” Cardamone said. “So for me, my perspective as someone who makes shit, L.A. is the backdrop. It’s like, the leading lady in like, everything I’ve done…The way of life here really either suits my personality or my personality was suited by it. You know, I’m not sure which. But I don’t think I could live in New York City. A) because I’m not a fucking multi-millionaire. And also because I just really do not do well with mass hysteria and humanity just dumped on me first thing in the morning. I like to like, get in a car and just, I need some time to wake up, you know what I mean? L.A.’s good for that—it has a lot of the attributes of a metropolis but it’s a very isolationist city. It’s so spread out, you could really go for long strips of time here without really having to interact with the masses if you don’t want to, but still have access to everything that a large city has to offer.”
Director Michael Grodner’s Los Angeles motif came from a slightly different perspective. “The closest type of film to what I wanted to do was something that I had seen back in, say… I’d seen these films that were made back in the late ’70s, early ’80s in the Lower East Side of New York,” he explained. “There is these films that came out of this No Wave Movement. Jim Jarmusch came out this period of time and there’s a film called The Foreigner by Amos Poe, there’s a movie, Blank Generation. And I loved those movies and the loved the feel of them and how they were made.”
“And I thought that I wanted to do a film like that, but in Los Angeles. So, I thought, ‘Well, who could I get to be the focus of the film or the main subject of the film?’ I thought Joe would be great person to be that character because I just always thought he’s an amazing frontman for the band. He’s very charismatic, very photogenic, and I thought he could really pull it off and be the center of this film. And I thought that his story at the time that we decided to make the film was particularly compelling. So, that’s why I chose Joe and I chose The Icarus Line as the subject of the film.”
Much of what colors The Icarus Line Must Die is the various characters that make their way through the film, notably Hardy. Similar to the trajectory of The Icarus Line, Hardy reached a buzzy pinnacle of acclaim from mainstream outlets, only to find herself in a similar situation to Cardamone: stuck in the perpetual cycle of facing the same issues in year 15 that they faced in year two, and the accompanying exhaustion that comes with that cycle.
She portrays herself as a conspiracy theory buff throughout the film, warning Cardamone about an elite reptilian race of royals and other interesting asides. “Me and Robert, who is my boyfriend who’s in the film who passed away…were both pretty big conspiracy buffs at the time and I still know about all that stuff,” said Hardy. “I try not to fall down that rabbit hole too much lately, but because at that time we were running something called Operation Jade Helm where there were helicopters overhead all the time, they were allegedly trying to normalize Americans to a heavy government presence, in everyday life and stuff.”
The cameos throughout the film from various Los Angeles musicians makes The Icarus Line Must Die feel even more like an authentic Los Angeles rock and roll film. “…People who are not a part of it don’t realize that everybody in the film really does know each other and everybody has got some sort of relationship,” said Hardy. “It’s half fiction, half non-fiction, basically.”
“Joe is somewhat at the epicenter of the underground music scene in Los Angeles,” said Grodner. “So, when Joe was signed to V2 Records, Jon Sidel was the head of A&R and Keith Morris was his assistant. He was working at V2 Records and then I believe he also became a A&R guy there. So, it’s all true and Joe knows Keith and Keith really respects The Icarus Line and Penance Soiree. So, it made sense that Keith would be part of it. It was a conscious effort too, on my part, that I wanted the people that…give a real nice cross-section of this indie scene that Joe and I worked in for the last several years. Keith is a relevant part of this scene, he’s there. Also, we knew that Keith is just a great, he’s a really interesting guy, he’s incredibly passionate about music, he’s so unique. I was so excited and happy to have him as part of the film.”
The film ends on a hopeful note for Cardamone and The Icarus Line. He manages to get a band together in time for a show at The Echo and it turns out that the manager of The Cult doesn’t want to wring his neck for trolling the band’s over-the-hill fans on the Sunset Strip (an episode that really did happen and only furthers the unpredictable and punk as fuck legend of The Icarus Line) and instead wants to work with Cardamone. He has a final conversation with one friend who’s stuck with him through every step of the Icarus Line journey until he literally was physically incapable of doing so — Alvin Deguzman, who makes an earlier appearance in the film at his parent’s house to discuss the cancer that he would eventually succumb to last year.
Contributions from Brian Furman, Kellie MacDougall and Matt Matasci