When Real Kids frontman John Felice stops by the Abbey Lounge after band practice to talk about a new film about his band called All Kindsa Girls, he has yet to view a second of footage from Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s independent documentary about his life and career. He admits to being "a little nervous" about seeing the film, which is named for a local hit that was on the first Real Kids album. The film, which screened for the first time last Tuesday at an intimate party at Cambridge’s Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, officially premieres at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of the Boston Film and Video Foundation’s "Meet the Director Series" this Tuesday, June 10 at 7:30. More than a little apprehension would be understandable, given even the broadest details of the story of the Real Kids, a band who have been, over the course of three decades, their "own worst enemy," as Felice himself admits as readily as anyone. The group’s bad behavior and bad decisions are as legendary as their music, a raw, melodic, garage-punk sound that still commands a loyal cult following 30 years after the release of the Real Kids’ first album.
It’s no secret that the Real Kids hobbled their own chances for success at every turn with drug problems, infighting, and an adamant, sometimes foolish refusal to compromise an inch of what they felt they stood for, to anyone. "I am not of the school of thought that any publicity is good publicity," says Felice, as a steady stream of younger rockers pass by our table at the Abbey, nodding respectful hellos in his direction. "Things get exaggerated, blown out of proportion, and people can get hurt."
All Kindsa Girls features the full cast of past and present Real Kids, with whom Felice has shared some strained relationships over the years. And Felice himself talks about his childhood, his music, and his personal demons and ideals. He’s not afraid of the truth. His participation in the film was "a matter of trust" in first-time filmmaker Eagan-Donovan, a former local band manager who’s been a dedicated fan of the Boston rock scene since the days when the Real Kids ruled it. "I’ve known Cheryl for over 20 years," he points out. "I figured if anyone was going to be able to handle the story, she could. We talked about it at length. I didn’t want it to be just a movie going ga-ga over the Real Kids. I thought the most interesting thing would be to show us warts and all."
The movie, however, is not an exposŽ. "Go read that book about the Doors if you want that," Felice says. "Those guys did it with tour buses and copious amounts of drugs I could never afford in my whole lifetime. The Real Kids were, and are, a struggling band."
The original Real Kids line-up — Felice, Alan "Alpo" Paulino, Howie Ferguson, and Billy Borgioli — disbanded for good after a final, fatal mess of a show at the Middle East on the millennial New Year’s Eve. The current Real Kids, who feature Borgioli’s long-time replacement on guitar, Billy Cole, former Queers bassist Chris Barnard, and drummer Jimmy Birmingham, the newest member — start recording a new Real Kids album next week, with some US-indie and European-label interest but no backing so far.
"That’s what this story is about, the struggle to keep it going, in spite of all the bullshit going on around us," Felice says.
The movie, a nonprofit endeavor shot on digital video, is a punk-rock DIY exercise in itself. Eagan-Donovan, whose studies at the BF/VF throughout the ’90s focused mainly on screenwriting, had worked on a few independent films before directing her own, but mainly in marketing roles. It was while writing a personal memoir about her experiences in the local scene that she came upon the idea for the Real Kids movie. "I didn’t really know John particularly well, but as I was writing I realized he kept showing up, and I started to see him as a complex central character," she recalls.
Another thing that intrigued Eagan-Donovan about the idea was the footage she had seen of the Real Kids’ 1983 performance at Le Bataclan in Paris. They were riding a wave of excitement for their third album, Outta Place (released in 1982 on New Rose in Europe and Star Rhythm in the US), and their behavior on that tour is rumored to have been appalling. But the shows were reportedly great. "When you see the crowd reaction there, it’s really powerful," says Eagan-Donovan. "It’s wonderful. I’d read Felice’s liner notes to some Real Kids reissues on Norton, where he says that a lot happened over there — maybe too much. And I wanted to know what happened. Because that might have been their apex, if they’d had one."
Without much technical experience to guide her, Eagan-Donovan met with some fortunate connections through her BF/VF friendships (including the movie’s director of photography, Steven Maing) and no shortage of integral well-wishers. Eagan-Donovan covered much of the roughly $250,000 budget herself, but was aided by financial contributions from friends and a wealth of cooperation from the local Boston rock community, which contributed interviews, archival materials, and in some cases free time. Classic Ruins bassist Carl Biancucci, for example, volunteered as production assistant/gopher. The movie’s perspective is broadened by the expansive cast that appears in live-performance and interview footage, from Jonathan Richman (Felice’s mentor and childhood next-door neighbor) to the young local punk band the Explosion. Other participants include Willie Alexander, David Minehan, J.J. Rassler, Felice’s mother and sister, and the Real Kids–worshiping Japanese band Teengenerate (now known as Firestarter), whose hilarious but sincere tribute to their "best hero" serves as fascinating testimony to the Real Kids’ enduring worldwide legacy.
Even after it screens at the Coolidge, All Kindsa Girls will be something of a struggling work in progress. Distribution has yet to be secured. Eagan-Donovan does hope to turn up enough post-production funding to pay for more archival footage and technical mastering. But even the rough-cut trailer suggests an appeal to larger markets than the cult of early garage-punk fans.
Eagan-Donovan says that her aim with the film has been to "balance reality with a sense of humor. I didn’t want to make something that took itself too seriously. That would be so wrong, especially for a Boston story. The ability to laugh at oneself, to be self-deprecating — that’s a Boston thing, and it’s really the charm Felice has. People have an impression of him as aloof, but he’s fully capable of laughing at himself."
The film also resonated because the Real Kids came of age during an important time for both the Boston rock scene and local scenes around the country. Eagan-Donovan calls it "the big bang" — that pivotal point in the late ’70s when cultural forces collided and the furious sound and self-reliant ideology of garage-rock helped fuel the beginnings of punk. That kids are still drawn to those musical values after nearly three decades is a testament to the magnitude of the impact. As Carl Biancucci of Real Kids contemporaries the Classic Ruins puts it when I contact him, "The Real Kids are to Boston what the Sex Pistols were to London and what the Ramones were to New York at that time. They put their foot down and said, ‘The type of music that’s popular right now is crap. Our old heroes have become boring, so we’re gonna take the ideas that we love from them and we’re gonna figure out the rest ourselves, thank you. We’re gonna write it, we’re gonna play it. Maybe we’re not as technically able as Jimmy Page on guitar, but we’re a lot more fun to listen to.’"
What kept the Real Kids from becoming as famous as their peers in other cities? "The Ramones," Felice offers, "were able to take their image, package it, and make it work. We didn’t have anybody who could do that for us — no management, no one to guide us in that way."
Whether the Real Kids were ever capable of taking advantage of such help, had it been there, is another story. "There were things we could have done that wouldn’t have been a sellout," Felice admits. "We could have been more open to suggestions. We were bigheaded to a fault. Managers didn’t want to touch us. Our reputation was just horrible. We wouldn’t dress differently, we wouldn’t cooperate, we wouldn’t do anything to promote ourselves, to give people some way to wrap themselves around what we were."
The Real Kids finally did break up for the first time in 1985. Felice formed new bands, including the Lowdowns and the Devotions, but in 1998 he returned to the Real Kids and started touring the country with the support of devoted fans such as Rancid, who tried to help get the band a new deal on the punk label TKO. And, despite some train-wreck shows and the departure of several drummers, Felice has kept the band going ever since.
"I can’t imagine not doing this if I’m going to be alive," he says. "The biggest thrill for me was getting back out on the road, seeing all these bands that weren’t even born when we put out our first album. And they’re hard-core Real Kids fans — some even cover Real Kids songs. To me a good song is a good song. It has value forever. It’s the ultimate compliment to me, that these kids are listening to our music for the first time and being blown away by it. I think I could actually be a happy person if I didn’t have to do anything else but write and play music every day. Maybe it will happen when I’m 60, if I’m around that long." All Kindsa Girls just might help him get there.