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Before grunge, there was Andrew Wood

One of the many faces of the late Andrew Wood. - Courtesy of Scot Barbour
One of the many faces of the late Andrew Wood.
— image credit: Courtesy of Scot Barbour

The islander’s brief life is recalled in ‘Malfunkshun’ at Celluloid Bainbridge.

Paging through the 1984 Bainbridge High School yearbook, it’s not easy to guess who the next doctor, lawyer or teacher will be. But the next rock star?

That’s obvious.

Andrew Wood sticks out amid the sea of blazers, ties and neatly feathered hair. A fluffy fur collar offsets the white paint covering Wood’s face; a thick swath of eye shadow matches his glossy lips, which he parts to reveal a wagging tongue.

“Imagine, if you will, a young effeminate cherub in spandex and a boa prancing around the stage of a punk rock venue, when it simply was not a cool thing to do,” said filmmaker Scot Barbour, whose documentary, “Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story,” is the featured entry in the 2006 Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival this weekend. “He made it cool because he was so absolutely genuine.”

“Malfunkshun,” to be screened Sunday at 7:30 p.m., spotlights a key personality in the early days of what the world would eventually call “grunge” music.

Wood and his band, Mother Love Bone, were one of the first Seattle groups to sign to a major record label just as fellow Northwest rockers Nirvana, Soundgarden and the Screaming Trees were about to take over the airwaves and top the album charts.

Despite paving the way, Wood missed the ride when he died of a drug overdose in 1990, at age 24. His bandmates, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, formed what would eventually become the iconic Seattle band Pearl Jam.

“There were three pivotal eras in the Seattle music movement known as grunge,” said Barbour, paraphrasing early ’90s radio DJ Damon Steward. “The first era was its birth and childhood, and Andy was the figurehead of that. It was the era of innocence, when a bunch of friends were playing music together and having a lot of fun. When Andy left, that changed.”

After Wood’s death, grunge hit adulthood – with all its successes and excesses.

“Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) was the figurehead then, everything was a business, friends split up, Seattle blew up, and the world ate it up,” Barbour said.

Unlike the heavy, earnest, and often dark mood of his musical successors, Wood was known for an effervescent spirit that “Malfunkshun” traces back to the young rock star’s early days on Bainbridge Island.

“Andy’s brother Kevin, took me on a cab ride all over the island and showed me places the family had lived, and where they would hang out,” Barbour said. “We talked about Kevin and (Wood’s other brother) Brian racing their cars down Wardwell Road, parties on the beaches, lots of great places.”

The documentary features footage of Wood’s earliest stage forays with his first band, from which the documentary takes its name. Fascinated by bands like Kiss and Queen, Wood often assumed the guise of “L’Andrew the Love God” to espouse the teachings of “love rock” to his Bainbridge Island flocks.

“Andrew Wood was love incarnate,” said Barbour. “He was an amazing, selfless human being to his audience. Everything he had is in his music. He never held anything back – he was incapable.”

Cherished

Wood’s generosity must have come from his mother, Toni, who picked Barbour up from Town & Country Market when he arrived from California with his camera and crew.

She also threw open the Wood clan’s archives to Barbour, who makes liberal use of old family photos and movie reels in his documentary.

Barbour dedicated the film to Toni, who still lives on the island and will introduce the film Sunday night.

According to Barbour, the Wood family’s support of the film opened doors that had been closed to him.

Once the family signed on, many of Andrew Wood’s bandmates and friends were more willing to talk to the largely unknown filmmaker.

Key players in grunge’s early days, including members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, open up to Barbour in the documentary. They paint a picture of a young singer and musician they considered a cherished friend and an awe-inspiring performer.

“Meeting (Wood) was kind of startling,” said ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in the film.

“He was effeminate, really, with the whole makeup thing going on. You’re meeting this person you really admire, and they’re dressed in some weird psycho T-Rex/Kiss costume.”

Cornell, who now performs with the band Audioslave, eventually became Wood’s roommate in Seattle, where the pair would spend hours recording each other’s songs. After Wood’s death, Cornell and members of Pearl Jam collaborated on a tribute album for their fallen friend.

It was this album, titled “Temple of the Dog,” that sparked Barbour’s interest.

“I heard the song “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and was blown away by it,” he said. “I was a high school dropout (and) I was working as a locksmith because breaking into things was all I really knew. I decided at some point that same year to straighten myself out, to become an artist, a filmmaker.

“Andy reminded me a lot of myself, and I was drawn to him and his music because of that.”

Barbour said he can see why successive generations on Bainbridge have carried on Wood’s “glam rock” mantle, including island bands like the Gruff Mummies and Holy Ghost Revival, who recently returned from a national tour.

“I would say that the isolation has a lot to do with it,” Barbour said. “When you get cooped up, you tend to get a little crazy. Flamboyant rock, or glam, (has) a bit of craziness really. It’s a way to be out on the fringe of society, sort of like how you might feel being on an island near Seattle.”

Barbour’s visits to Bainbridge were an unforgettable part of the nearly 10-year process of putting Wood’s story on film.

“It was a bit surreal for me in a way, you know?” he said. “I felt like I had begun the journey to walk in Andy’s footsteps when I came to the island. I knew that I had a long way to go and that I would never be the same again when I had finished.

“It was a big journey for me and I put a lot into it.”

* * * * *

Local cinema

The 2006 Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival runs 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Lynwood Theatre. “Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story” screens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Co-sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council and Lynwood Theatre, Celluloid Bainbridge is an annual festival of movies that were either filmed on Bainbridge or feature an island resident in the cast or crew. This year’s 34 entries include full-length and short documentaries, student projects, children’s animation films, short features and experimental works.

Admission is by donation. See the film schedule at www.artshum.org.

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