By Jeremy Essig
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Last April, Armed Forces Entertainment booked Earthworms to perform at American military bases across Europe, a tour that would take them across the continent to seven countries in less than two weeks. The St. Louis hip-hoppers — emcees Mathias, Black Patrick and Kama, plus DJ Mahf — decided that they needed to document their journey, so they invited local filmmaker Lincoln Nelson to tag along. Everything was going as planned until disaster struck on the last leg of the tour.
"It was originally going to be just concert footage," Nelson explains. "We were getting sound mixes from the boards at every show, but toward the end our hard drive got fried on some European circuitry."
Although the precious sound component of their documentary was destroyed, Nelson and Co. still had more than 50 hours of footage that chronicled their travels, tour-bus hijinks and time spent on the American military outposts. With that, the group decided to try something different. The film they produced, Capricorn Dreams, is equal parts travelogue, history lesson, music video and slapstick comedy.
"Losing [the sound mixes] was kind of a blessing in disguise," says Earthworms emcee Mathias, who doubled as the group's tour manager. "I think it gave the movie its soul. It asks deeper questions than just, 'Let's follow these guys around on their tour.' It's more human now."
The title Capricorn Dreams is a reference to the group's frantic scramble to reach a Dutch hash bar before the establishment closed for the night. (Its latest LP, Midnight at the Capricorn, was released in January on IndyGround Records.) It's appropriate, because a constant pursuit of the party — whether on the tour bus, in the bar after the show, or at the grocery store the morning after they step off their transatlantic flight — is a central plot element.
"I kind of call it a 'fockumentary,' as in, we're just fuckin' around," Nelson says. "It's definitely meant to be billed as a comedy. There's this social commentary aspect, but between that I was hoping to ambush people with some dick and fart jokes."
The "social commentary" comes courtesy of narrator Jonathan Toth of Earthworms' hip-hop collective, the Frozen Food Section. Toth is a helpful tour guide, explaining how Earthworms got the gigs (an Armed Forces Entertainment booking agent heard about its 2008 release, Bottle Full of Bourbon, via a positive review on CDBaby.com), introducing the characters (Earthworms were joined by fellow St. Louisans Fresh Heir, who served as the opening act and backing band) and cracking jokes about the boys' debauched behavior. He also offers a bit of context about how U.S. armed forces ended up occupying each base on the tour.
Perhaps the most profound portion of the film is the stop in Kosovo, the only base visited by Earthworms that was located in a combat zone. Using some History Channel-type mapping and a few gruesome stock photos of mass graves, Nelson deftly explains how civil war in Bosnia led to genocide and, eventually, the founding of Kosovo. Drive-by filming out the window from the tour bus provides a bleak portrait of the wartorn countryside.
"The challenge was asking myself, 'How real do I show it?' 'Cause that shit was real," Nelson says. "But who knows, maybe somebody who is watching it will be like 'Oh, that's why all these Bosnians are here [in St. Louis.]'"
Mathias recounts how the U.S. troops were sent to quell an uprising at Serbian border while the band was still on base — and the impact that the band's visit had at on the soldiers' morale.
"Mostly they were mad excited to see people walking around base that they didn't see everyday," Mathias recounts. "Some folks were just excited about seeing people wearing regular clothes to remind them of home."
As viewers watch the wild ride unfold, it's easy to forget that it was Earthworms' job to entertain U.S. troops and their families, most of whom were either on leave from or en route to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fortunately, there are enough sobering moments to remind viewers what made the movie possible.
"We're out killing the bad guys and shit," one excited soldier says after a performance in Germany, "but we come back home and want to chill. These dudes make it worth it."