By Mia Groeninger
The documentary, House Band, recently premiered at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival and follows a group of homeless men who formed a musical band on the Venice Boardwalk. The film follows musician Jacob as policies change for the unhoused along the Los Angeles coastline.
This was an obvious passion project for Director Laura Brownson, known for her incendiary Netflix documentary The Rachel Divide about the controversial former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal.
Brownson zeroes in on Jacob, 64, and several of his bandmates who are all homeless men living in Venice Beach. The film also touches on the past and present stories of musicians named Benny, Steve O, Greg, Soldier and Al. The band, started by described musical genius Al, is named “Flight Risk” and is open to displaced musicians who can play as they come and go. They film touches on the musicians feeling like outsiders most of the time, except when they are playing music.
Jacob expressed that each and every one of them had “lofty intentions;” some were even professional musicians at one point but ended up failing with nowhere to go. David, the owner of a restaurant near the boardwalk allows the band to perform in front of his building. He understands that he does not know enough to be a part of the political conversation regarding the homeless crisis. Rather, he chooses to be kind and generous, giving out coffees each morning and using the resources available to him.
Venice Beach is a place where the very wealthy and abjectly impoverished live side by side. Even when people are kind, Jacob discusses the feeling of disconnect because he is not part of the same world. He grew up in a very abusive household, constantly being told he was worthless. It is a struggle for him, living in a city he used to be able to afford but can no longer provide for himself. He found himself cutting off every part of his old life and burning bridges that he would never be able to rebuild.
Jacob is quite intelligent and writes stories about “incredible moments that nobody ever sees” in an effort to bring forgotten stories to the forefront. He says that this is “not a happy way of life but a horrible way of life.” However, he is learning to accept it and is trying to move forward rather than “perusing the endless shelves of the huge hortatorium that is the past.” Although he does not do drugs or drink like his bandmates, he is still one of them, and they are his family and will always look out for one another even if they are invisible to society.
“Homelessness feels like you’re living on a sinking ship that’s all going to go down one day,” Jacob said.
Not only is this documentary a social commentary on the plaguing homeless issue that most California cities are facing, but it aims to shed light on neglected stories and capture the humanity that has been so overlooked. The producers are not afraid to show the raw realities of homeless life through depicting graphic images of encampments, substance abuse, and mental illness. These are the most significant problems that people living on the streets face, which have not been adequately addressed by the government. There is no clear solution, but Jacob believes that politicians only care when they are imposing on prime real estate areas or tourist attractions.
Meeting the personalities and hearing the stories of these humans can evoke a genuine compassion, which this documentary did a wonderful job of portraying. It is a step in the right direction of debunking the narrative of “us versus them” that has caused a systemic divide in America.
Out of 2,000 homeless in Venice, 200 were given temporary shelter during the pandemic. There are currently 67,000 unhoused in Los Angeles and nearly half a million in the United States. Yet, this issue is so much more than a statistic; so next time you cross to the other side of the street, remember that they are humans with stories worth telling.
Mia is a local high school student and intern at edhat.com