Among the recent wave of music documentaries on the marginally infamous, this video history gets its juice from a love-hate affair with the vibe of a graying boho remake of The Sunshine Boys. When Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber joined forces as the first and perhaps only true practitioners of “acid folk” in the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s, their Holy Modal Rounders managed a couple fleeting brushes with mainstream showbiz: a truncated performance on Laugh-In (which the erstwhile drummer—playwright and movie star Sam Shepard—claims no memory of) and the appearance of their cracked “Bird Song” on the soundtrack of Easy Rider. Come the ‘70s, Stampfel, a banjoist-fiddler with a caterwauling yowl perfectly suited to the Rounders’s manic, absurdist lyrical travesties (including perhaps the earliest utterance of “psychodelic” [sic] on vinyl), stayed in New York to kick speed and raise a family, while the increasingly dissolute guitarist Weber relocated with the rest of the band to Portland, Oregon, where the heroin was clean and the needles cheap.
Shot mostly between 2000 and 2003 when the reunited band toured to exploit renewed attention from alt-rock youngsters, Bound to Lose finds the two principals in their late 50s, still deeply delighted and annoyed with each other. Weber, a spindly Mosaic hedonist now smack-free but pounding as many beers as he can between sound check and showtime, forgets verses in rehearsal but bristles at Stampfel’s hands-on efforts to corral him and at passive-aggressive accusations of song-credit theft. Directors Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace are handicapped by the apparent lack of vintage Rounders footage, but the fire-and-ice sparring between these tetched visionaries is a diverting spectacle between onstage performances of HMR warhorses like “Griselda” and “Fuckin’ Sailors in Chinatown” (both written by the vanished Antonia—Weber’s ex and Stampfel’s first wife). The late folksinger Dave Van Ronk testifies that “the unwashed” never comprehended the Rounders’s joyful subversion of the often deadly earnestness of their MacDougal Street milieu, but the climactic end of the partnership that created 40 wiggy years of musical frenzy casts a poignant glow on this cult troupe’s odyssey.