From the outside, it often seems as if running a successful independent record label is an exercise in navigating contradictory impulses. You certainly don't want everything you release to sound the same but you need to establish a cohesive identity, you need to take risks to stand out but you also need a good head on your shoulders and so on and so forth. It's a schizophrenic mix of art and commerce, a tightrope act that Tom Hazelmyer pulled off with a certain dangerous flair during his time as czar of the sprawling noise-rock empire Amphetamine Reptile Records. That's probably because Hazelmyer himself is a bit of a split personality, a Midwestern punk kid turned US Marine whose outrageous story is brought loudly to life in the entertaining new documentary The Color of Noise.
While the film functions as a thorough chronicle of the talent Amphetamine Reptile managed to recruit, a roster that at one time or another included the Melvins, Mudhoney, Helios Creed and Cosmic Psychos in addition to a host of others, the focus here is on the man behind it all. As ambitious as he is uncompromising, Hazelmyer originally founded the label in 1986 as a vehicle for his own band, Halo of Flies, but quickly transformed it into an alternative powerhouse, largely thanks to his tireless work ethic and uncanny ability to form connections with like-minded weirdos from around the world. And with over 50 interviews, plenty of those weirdos, from musicians to visual artists to record store employees, are on hand to recount their often unpredictable interactions with AmRep's prickly but lovable leader.
At two hours, The Color of Noise might go into a little too much detail concerning the imprint's ups and downs, but with so much archival footage, particularly from label staples like Unsane and Helmet, it rarely feels long. It's also lent an unexpected third act by the fact that this look at his life nearly coincided with its end, since Hazelmyer fell into a meningitis-induced coma during production, remaining unconscious for nearly a month. His miraculous recovery, during which he discovered a new passion for printmaking, brings some poignancy to the film but, true to its subject, it never veers into sentimentality. Instead it embraces Hazelmyer's rough edges, showing him to be simultaneously a loyal friend and an unapologetic asshole, both traits which have served him well in his chosen field.