What does it mean to be a successful artist? Suppose, for instance, you’re a musician. Does it mean selling multiple platinum records, playing sold-out arena shows and basking in fame and fortune? Would you settle for opening for a few bigger-ticket artists, hawking some merch and having a good time? Not every good — or even great — artist is destined to break through into culture at large, and even those who do don’t always stay on top. Judging whether financial success is achieved is one thing. There are metrics for that. But artistic success? That’s much harder, much more personal, and it becomes a bigger question the farther away the first definition of success becomes.
Many rockumentaries work overtime to mythologize their subjects’ place in history even if the bands in question never found wider success. Usually, the bandmates show up in interviews to talk about the great times they had on the road, the shows they played and maybe even their taste of the rock-star lifestyle. Lots of waxing poetic for the halcyon days of youth. These films don’t ask questions about what it all meant or what success means to a punk band who have hit middle-age with kids, mortgages and other responsibilities but still feel the call to play their music as loud as possible.
Thankfully, Gridlocked: On Tour with the Briggs is primarily concerned with precisely those questions.
Writer-director Kevin James Barry joined the Briggs on their reunion tour in 2015, which was a relatively short stint along the West Coast playing small venues. By 2015, the band’s heyday was over a decade past, and this tour promised to potentially be the band’s final run of live performances (and apparently remains so as of 2022). The punk group was started by LaRocca brothers Jason and Joey in 1999 (under the initial name I Decline) and enjoyed relative success for the next decade. The band released four albums between 2001 and 2008. They opened for big-ticket acts like Dropkick Murphys, Bad Religion and Flogging Molly. Their song “This is L.A.” was even used as the opening number for Los Angeles Kings home games. To observers, that sounds like a successful artistic run. To Joey LaRocca in particular, though, all of that felt like the distant past.
Although each of the current band members is featured, Joey becomes the “main character” of the piece thanks to extensive interviews that dive deep into the question of artistic success and just why the Briggs are even embarking on this tour seven years after the last album. What does he want out of life, and what does sitting on a bus with his brother and friends mean to him when he has a family back home and other responsibilities? It’s clear from the interviews that he was, at this time, pretty depressed and rundown about living a life without this type of artistic expression, feeling like a failure for not taking their successes further. A flash-forward to 2018 at the end of the film finds Joey in a better place, but his mindset at the time of the tour really dives deep into the kind of conflicted feelings many artists have about their work and how it’s received. There’s no attempt to overstate their legend, and the film is more compelling for it.
Of course, those who aren’t as interested in the inner workings of bands may find it a tough watch. The tour footage is largely the five men — the LaRocca brothers and their bandmates Jake Margolis, Derik Envy and Trevor Jackson — shooting the shit and having a nice time together. Some of them are more excited to be on the road again, crashing on couches and cheap motels, than their bandmates. There’s little actual conflict shown, perhaps because the tour is so short. Several of them FaceTime back to their kids and families. This tour is drug- and alcohol-free, although very little is spoken of whether any of the bandmates are specifically in recovery.
Frankly, it’s kind of refreshing to see a punk documentary that doesn’t dwell on whether the now middle-aged band members miss being young men. All five seem well-adjusted to their lives outside of the tour. Joey’s in-depth interviews are much more focused on whether he can find artistic satisfaction within the confines of middle-aged life, and that’s a question most artists have to ask themselves as they grow older. Gridlocked isn’t just another band documentary about the good old days: It questions what those days meant and what it means to make good new days as an older and wiser, but no less committed, artist. In a genre that usually deifies an artist’s past, it actually feels a little punk to tell a story so thoughtful, but not self-aggrandizing, about an artist’s future.