When filmmaker David Zeiger spends a year documenting his son Danny's high school marching band in Decatur, Georgia, he gets a crash course in love, friendship, and marching in formation. Featuring refreshingly candid student commentary on everything from anorexia and Ritalin to divorced parents and race relations, The Band is a lively, engrossing look at the ups and downs of all-American teenage life, 1990's style. The film is a portrait of postmodern adolescence told from the bittersweet perspective of a father with one son on the verge of adulthood and another son who lives only in memories.
"I went to a football game at Decatur High, where Danny was a sophomore," says Zeiger, recalling his decision to begin filming The Band. "I looked over and was shocked to see Danny dancing, something I'd never seen him do before. Suddenly there was this brand-new person there, this teenager living in his own world. It hit me immediately that I wanted to make a film about him."
Only seven when his brother Michael died at the age of nine, Danny withdrew emotionally and spent the next eight years immersed in his own private world. The film tenderly examines the fragile bond between parents and children and the grief following the loss of a child.
Collaborating on The Band over the course of Danny's junior year not only strengthened the connection between Danny and his father but also helped both of them come to terms with their loss.
"For Danny and me, the effect of Michael's death has always been with us in our own different ways," explains Zeiger. "In a sense, I was trying to find Michael, to figure out what his life would be like if he hadn't died. You never get over the death of a child. But in making this film, I was saying good-bye to Danny the little boy. Accepting his growing up helped me to accept and live with Michael's death."
For Danny and his high school friends, life is an endless whirl of adolescent curve balls, and The Band chronicles all of them — from tempestuous first love affairs to heartfelt discussions of growing up in families redefined by divorce. Danny's girlfriend, Mary Ellen, speaks openly about her struggle with anorexia. Classmate Burt, a charming ne'er-do-well, tells wild tales of his run-ins with the law. Friends Kate and Cameron discuss their battles with Attention Deficit Disorder and the prescription drug culture. Adding her voice is Erin, the drill team captain and senior class president, who with quiet equanimity far beyond her years, describes life at home as both daughter and friend to a mother who drinks. Their stories are both deeply personal and surprisingly universal, a touching reminder of how little the experience of growing up changes from generation to generation.
"A lot of people are surprised at how open the kids are, and they think that I did something very unique and special to get them to open up," says Zeiger. "In a sense, all I did was just be there. I spent a lot of time not asking questions, not directing anything, but just listening to what was going on in their lives. We have a strong tendency in this country to both trivialize and exploit teenagers. We lock them into stereotypes and ignore the intensity of their lives. I hope this film will give people a real sense of who young people really are."