Sublime documentary sheds light on the band, the opioid crisis

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 Usually, a documentary about a band has the band’s name in the title, but that isn’t the case with the new Sublime documentary. The film focuses on the battles with substance abuse that was pervasive in the circle of friends around the band Sublime. Todd Zalkins was one of those people suffering from a serious opioid addiction. He was also a very close friend to late Sublime lead singer Bradley Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose in 1996 just as the band was earning fame that extended far beyond Long Beach, California.

The beginning of the film uses grainy newspaper headlines and photographs and typed-onscreen definitions of opioids, followed by a list of examples of drugs that are considered opioids. The movie is full of music, scenes of Long Beach, California, and shots of Zalkins, Brad Nowell’s family members and graphic representations of Zalkins’ battle with drugs and withdrawal.

“The Long Way Back” has a way of covering a range of topics from opioids, music, and the relationship between parents and children, that makes it much more than a band film. The film won Best Documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival 2017.

About “The Long Way Back”

In some ways, the film is organized like a well-written essay. The opening graphics and onscreen type work to inform audiences about the opioid problem. It answers questions that general audiences might have: What is an opioid? What drugs are considered opioids? There are even grave statistics about the number of opioid deaths to further remind audiences that this is a serious problem that isn’t limited to one demographic. The opening also discusses the deaths of Prince and Michael Jackson. With the mention of those famous people who couldn’t escape the grip of opioids, viewers are prepared to learn about Bradley Nowell and his struggle.

Most of Zalkins’ narrative is framed as part of his address to a group of what appears to be teenagers. His main purpose is to warn them about the dangers of opioids. Two of Zalkins’ endeavors as of late include working as a public speaker and as an interventionist.

But Zalkins doesn’t do all the talking. He is interviewed in various scenic locales around Long Beach, but there are others, such as Sublime’s drummer, Bud Gaugh, and other friends, some of whom went on to form the Long Beach Dub All-Stars. That group was formed as a tribute to Nowell.

The documentary packs a lot of information into one film. But each contribution is interesting, and viewers lose themselves in the world of Long Beach in the 1990s including the day Nowell’s friends discovered he had died, and Zalkins’ attempt to deal with life after Nowell and his own growing substance abuse addiction.

The film also answers (without acknowledging that such even exists) the urban myths surrounding Nowell’s death. Sublime fans in the Midwest and elsewhere are doubtless familiar with the stories of how Nowell was found and in what state. I am omitting details because they are unnecessarily grotesque and simply macabre because they aren’t true. What is more important is the legacy Nowell left behind and the dedicated fans who tried to keep his memory alive. (Long Beach Dub All-Stars broke up in 2002.) Sadly, Nowell left behind a wife and one-year-old child. His son, Jakob Nowell, is also a performer in a band. He sings in the film and sounds just like his father. His performances are stunning.

Sublime: Its sound and legacy

The unfortunate fact about Sublime was that by the time their first album was in wide release, Nowell had already died. The band even won a Grammy in 1997, and Nowell wasn’t there. It seemed beyond sad that the songs, from “Santeria” to “Date Rape” existed without their original singer to perform them.

Sublime’s sound was a mix of ska and punk, urban and suburban, frat and street, sort of. The combinations worked, and each song tells a story, and in the 1990s, they seemed to capture the grit and truth of the time and of certain types of places, not just California. They commented on the Rodney King riots in the song, “April 29, 1992.” Their position was urban and liberal and resonated with listeners. It calls people out on watching the riots on television, while the narrator knew what it was like to participate.

Zalkins’ style is affable and as a storyteller, he draws people in. He is still close with Nowell’s father, and his son, too. Zalkins is the co-founder of Bradley’s House. Bradley’s House is a rehab center with a specific demographic in mind:  musicians.

Zalkins’ story is ultimately one of survival. He puts a face on the opioid crisis, even as he works as an interventionist, public speaker, entrepreneur, and performs in a punk band.

 

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