By Joseph Golfen
When filmmaker Nicholas “Nico” Holthaus started filming local bands playing on Mill Ave. in the mid-1990, it’s unlikely that he realized he was capturing a dying era. But where flannel-clad music fans once crowded outside seedy haunts like Long Wong’s listening to alternative rock, there now stands a street home to little more than chain restaurants and a few cheesy bars. As music venues and local stores started closing their doors and corporate America moved on in, Holthaus decided to keep recording and tell the story of this infamous Arizona street.
Mill Ave. Inc., the result of Holthaus’ endeavors, debuted last night at Harkin's Valley Arts on Mill Ave. and included performances by local bands.
The film primarily documents the death of the Tempe music sense, which enjoyed its heyday in 1990’s and gave rise to national acts like the Gin Blossoms, The Refreshments, Jimmy Eat World and The Meat Puppets. In addition, the film discusses the closure of a wide array of independent stores that once lined the brick-paved street.
Interviews from a slew of local musicians, artists and business owners spent a long time waxing nostalgic for the days long gone, while railing against corporate infringement into the area by evil empires such as Starbucks, Borders and Abercrombie & Fitch. While these are sentiments echoed by a great number of people in the Tempe community, the movie didn’t offer much history or critical information, never rising above the level of disgruntled people reminiscing about the way it used to be.
That’s not to say the film wasn’t entertaining. Locals who had frequented the bars on Mill for decades talked about the crazy things went on and the intensity of the scene, offering a lot of great stories and plenty of laughs.
Despite including interviews with relevant Mill Avenue players such as Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, Gin Blossom’s lead singer Robin Wilson and several former Mill Ave. store owners, a significant portion of the commentary lacked substance. There was a distinct lack of facts or causes for the downfall of the Mill Avenue music scene. Most of the sentiment seemed to keep repeating the message that Mill Avenue was great until corporations moved in and now it sucks.
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Mill Ave. Inc. also did not go out of its way to present both sides of the story. There was a lot of talk about chain companies muscling people out, and ASU selling out and taking over, but there was not one voice from that any of those camps speaking on the subject. It’s easy to point fingers. It’s much harder to ask questions.
The movie also suffered from distractingly bad editing. Lines of dialogue were spliced together incoherently, and some scenes were just series of jump cuts, with people suddenly in a different spot with things disappearing out of the background. This amateurish editing, mixed with some mediocre camera work and storytelling made the movie a little harder to take seriously.
For long time Mill Avenue fans Mill Ave. Inc. is a welcome trip down memory lane that ends with a lot of hopeful visions of a future. The film suggests that Mill will rise up again as a cultural center; even if it’s a little different then we remember.