Published Mar 11, 2020It is somewhat difficult to determine whether Mouth Congress, the new film about the band Mouth Congress, is actually a documentary or not.
The theatrical punk band, co-founded by Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall and his frequent writing partner in that troupe, Paul Bellini, formed in the early 1980s and broke up in 1992 without releasing any records. Their live shows were provocative, but scantly attended, and more or less stopped once the Kids in the Hall got their own TV show on CBC in 1988.
In 2016, Thompson and Bellini reformed Mouth Congress for a one-off show at the Rivoli in Toronto, and had the leadup to it and the concert itself, filmed. Why? Nobody really knows.
To explain it in this film, Thompson and Bellini conjured a kind of Princess Bride-like conceit, in which fellow KITH Kevin McDonald plays the uncle of Melancholy, a young girl who, upon hearing the origin of Mouth Congress as a bedtime story, has a vivid dream about their reunion show.
"Well, we call it a documentary because we traffic in lies," Thompson says, cracking Bellini up. "Sometimes we think it's a mockumentary."
"But it's not that ether," Bellini adds.
"It's a film," Thompson says, settling.
Bellini carefully archived much of the early days of Mouth Congress, which includes days and days of videotape of Thompson posing for the camera ("I was just a preening narcissist who liked to be on camera," he admits) and virtually all of the band's early gigs, including their first.
The old home movies, shot when VHS and mini-tapes were just on the market (Bellini borrowed cameras from wedding photographer pal Rob Rowatt, himself a one-time member of Mouth Congress's rotating lineup), present this revealing, kaleidoscopic view of Toronto, which didn't seem to really know what to do with the rise of either punk or LGBTQ+ communities.
All of that, coupled with the playfully acerbic friendship between Bellini and Thompson, who at one point in this doc convinces his friend to alter the lyrics to a song to make it about him being a gerbil who gerbils, adds up a to very funny and insightful film about a band, led by two men who were unheralded cultural pioneers.
"It started as a basement project where we had a drum machine and a tape recorder," Bellini recalls. "After about a year, we talked about it so much that [fellow Kid] Bruce McCulloch got sad for us and invited us to do a live show. All of a sudden we had an opportunity to take the basement project and put it on stage and that transformed it in a way."
Though they never released any records during their original run, that changes this Record Store Day, when Captured Tracks releases the first Mouth Congress seven-inch.
"It's got three of our signature songs on it, so we're very excited about that," Bellini says of the limited edition orange vinyl.
"And then the album, which is called Waiting for Henry — if the single does any business, then the album will come out afterwards," Thompson reveals. "It's amazing, because everything we recorded was done in such a primitive manner, and Captured Tracks is cleaning everything up and remastering the tracks. Holy cow, it sounds like real music!"
By some strange timing, this interest in all things Mouth Congress coincides with the exciting news that Kids in the Hall are reuniting for a new sketch series on Amazon. Despite many live tours and the odd collective creative pursuit, this marks the troupe's first return to sketch TV since their CBC/HBO/CBS series ended in 1994. Thompson says the whole crew is happily writing together in Toronto.
"We're in our third week of writing and it'll be shot this summer," he reveals. "Amazon has bought the entire Kids in the Hall library so that will be released first. For now, we're making eight new episodes. It's feeling fantastic. There are a couple of days where you're learning to ride a bike again, but I couldn't be happier. It's just a thrill."
"I'm assuming a towel guy appearance," Bellini says, when asked about his role in this series, evoking his iconic comedy creation. "I think it's great and I'm looking forward to it. But at the age of 60, putting on a towel again — what're you gonna do? It's my life."
Of course, as we continue to live in an age of outrage, scrutiny follows all good news.
The Kids in the Hall uncompromisingly pushed network sketch as far as it could go, with the wise foresight to be timeless; their work was rarely ever topical and, beyond camera technology, doesn't come across as particularly dated. When the Amazon series was announced, however, some on Twitter reminded us that Kids in the Hall sketches might have featured members (specifically Mark McKinney, as a blues singer) in blackface.
Is 2020 ready for Kids in the Hall? Are they ready for it?
"Honestly, I'm nervous and excited," Thompson states. "I'm not worried. I've been told by people, 'You can't do this, you can't do that, this won't fly.' And I'm like, 'Well, you know what? Let's see. Let's see how far we can go.'
"Even when you use the term 'blackface,' I find that interesting because, first of all, that's not how we thought about us playing anyone from any other race. I'm just a person that thinks everybody's the same. There aren't that many barriers for people to understand each other. I just thought, 'I want to look like a character so I'm going to try.' I never thought it was a big deal.
"We'll see what we get to do now," Thompson adds. "And I'm sure there will be people that are outraged, but I'm sure the vast majority will not be. I think that's what will happen."
"I know what's in my heart and I know why I do these things. If the Kids in the Hall don't turn over a few apple carts, then what's the point?"
The world premiere of Mouth Congress takes place at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival on March 14, 2020.
Listen to this interview with Mouth Congress on the Kreative Kontrol podcast via Apple Podcasts or below: