When I look back on the factors that prompted me to choose this particular line of work, I break them down thusly: 20 percent can be attributed to a genuine desire to learn and communicate, 10 percent to an insubordinate streak and five percent to a fourth-grade teacher’s comment that I was nice smart boy at writing stuff good. The other 65 percent? A deep-rooted disdain for dressing like an adult. Law, medicine, finance, flight-attendance - careers in these and other fields are premised on tucking in one’s shirt. That seems a lot to ask.
I’m a jeans guy. I’ve always been a jeans guy. Somewhere, there exists 8mm footage of a very young LD singing along to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans.” Due to my Dad’s lack of facility with analog-to-digital transfers, this footage is not likely to find its way onto the Internet - but it nonetheless continues to serve as a powerful deterrent to family misbehavior. Off-topic: Is there an inadvertently funnier couplet in any song than FIBJ’s “honey’s sweet/but it ain’t nothing next to baby’s treat”? I say no. I would accept any invitation that involves debating such matters in a setting where there is beer in abundance.
Where was I? Jeans. I love jeans, and to love jeans is to love Levi’s 501s. Arguments can be made for Polo shirts or Converse sneakers, but in my mind there’s no more iconic item of everyday men’s clothing than Levi’s jeans. John Wayne wore Levi’s. So did James Dean. Were those Levi’s on the cover of Born in the U.S.A.? Sure were! I’ve never seen Michael Jordan or Princess Grace or JFK in Levi’s, but it stands to reason they’d have donned a pair at some point, right? Hell, Levi’s even has a compelling origin story, in that they were originally envisioned as gruntwear for miners.
So why is it that getting through all 18 interminable minutes of “The 501 Jean: Stories of an Original,” a documentary that traces the evolution of Levi’s 501s and attempts to convey the depth of its sartorial and pop-cultural impact, required me to handcuff my mitts behind my chair? Such a step was necessary, lest that I lurch for the fast-forward button every time some random person waxed philosophic on how “this humble, utilitarian garment” worn “during decades of activist movements” became “the Australopithecus of cool jeans.”
The mini-documentary, which debuted in full last week, divides the Levi’s 501 story into three segments. “Work” touches on the aforementioned product origin, complete with so-called denim miners who explore abandoned mines in the hope of finding old Levi’s jeans. “Style” delves into how 501s became a fashion phenomenon, fueled by the cowboy movies of the 1930s. “Rebellion” assesses their counterculture appeal and how they’ve managed to remain so popular with photographers, rockers, bikers and other members of the creative tribe.
The tripartite structure makes sense; it’s the haphazard assembly and tone that doesn’t. Take the “Work” segment, which commences with a visit to a fabric mill and check-ins with a handful of longtime workers, then whiplashes to a bunch of guys who build motorcycles. The point “Stories of an Original” is attempting to make here, I think, is that Levi’s 501s have always been more about form and function than fashion, but it goes about that task without regard to narrative coherence.
And then it swings back completely in the other direction, arguing in “Style” that, in fact, Levi’s 501s have always been a fave of low-fi fashionistas. To illustrate this point, it hauls out that stylish documentary standby - the white screen backdrop - and has a bunch of random stylemeisters deliver their tributes while lit like models. By the time you get to “Rebellion,” in which we’re told that Levi’s 501s were a favorite of “young farm workers turned rockers,” you start to wonder if the story is being told truthfully or hewing instead to some preferred corporate version of history. “Young farm workers turned rockers”?
The tone of “Stories of an Original” is equally off-putting. I understand that for a project of this ilk Levi’s isn’t going to spring for footage of, say, Elvis shaking his be-jean’d tush. But somehow, the decision was made to downplay the fun and delight associated with an iconic product in favor of its capital-I Influence and Importance.
As a result, what should be a light, limber telling of the 501 tale instead comes across as ponderous and almost comically random. Henry Rollins generally adds something to every project in which he participates, but he gets a minute or two worth of screen time to say, essentially, “I wore Levi’s because Levi’s are what I happened to be wearing.” If you’re gonna go the deep-thoughts route, maybe bring in an academic or three. Or how about somebody associated with the design or marketing of 501s over the years?
It’s rare that I get my hopes up for anything I write about in this space, because brand videos ain’t exactly lost Doctorow novels or archival Townshend demos. Maybe that’s why “Stories of the Original” left me feeling so sour. It represented the rare instance where a brand/product I dig chose to tell the exact story I’ve long wanted to hear. Perhaps viewers who haven’t been wearing Levi’s 501s for [mumbles into inside of elbow] years won’t be as disappointed by the approach taken here.
But I expect they will. Holy moly. What an opportunity botched.