We have no control over who lives, who dies, and who tells our story. But […] I am heartened by the fact that Josh wrote one hell of a tale.
–Abbie Fischel, at her husband’s memorial
Mere hours after the closing of the inaugural Music Tastes Good, a three-day event that transformed a half-dozen square blocks of East Village Arts District into festival grounds the likes of which Long Beach had never seen, musician/organizer/impresario Josh Fischel, a dreamer of sometimes unrealistic proportions, was rushed to the hospital where days later he breathed his last. Many in his orbit knew he was ill, but nobody, nobody — not his friends, not his wife, not the people with whom he spent nearly every day over the previous chaotic year putting together Music Taste Good with more will than skill — expected him to be gone nearly so soon.
But we all gotta go sometime. And despite how painfully shocking it was to lose someone so seemingly permanent as this bear of a man, six years on it’s hard not to appreciate a certain poetry in his exit. For better and for worse, Josh Fischel self-produced the way he left this world.
How to Throw Your Own Goodbye Party chronicles exactly that: a self-destructive creator who drove himself and others to fulfill a dream that was the last act of his life.
Lauren Coleman wasn’t a filmmaker, but as a member of the Music Tastes Good team she had a front-row seat to Fischel’s final year.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish we could hire a camera crew, because every day something was going wrong,” she recalls. “[…] Usually when I’m doing something I can look down the pipeline and see how it’s going to pan out, but [not in this case]. As things were getting more and more hectic, I said, ‘I need to document this.’ I didn’t think, ‘Later I’m going to do a film,’ but I just thought this was a very pivotal time.”
How to Throw Your Own Goodbye Party not only chronicles that time through use of over 40 interviews and 70 hours of found footage from a wide variety of sources (including audio recordings of MTG planning meetings), but also provides enough background material that even those who never heard of Josh Fischel or Music Tastes Good can come away with an integrated portrait of both.
Coleman didn’t start out with such lofty ambitions. In the wake of Fischel’s sudden death, she helped curate a public celebration of his life — fittingly produced by RIOTstage, a troupe Fischel founded in 2013 to mount ambitious one-off theatrical musical events, including front-to-back performances of Abbey Road, Pet Sounds, The Wall, and an original staging of The Nightmare Before Christmas — and then immersed herself in helping bring off another two iterations of the rechristened “Josh Fischel’s Music Tastes Good.” It was only after MTG went on hiatus in 2018, at dinner with several MTG teammates, that she got the idea to create a document of the inaugural festival. “‘There’s an incredible story here,’ she remembers thinking. “‘If we’re not going to continue the festival that is his legacy, [a film] is a way to solidify that.’”
But as she collected and logged the footage, she realized there was a far deeper and more complex narrative in the offing, one with unavoidably dark undertones relating to Fischel’s alcoholism and the lengths to which he went to hide it as he persisted to drink in secret after being diagnosed with liver disease and told by doctors in no uncertain terms to stop.
“One of the reasons I felt I needed to revisit this was coming to the realization that [during MTG planning] we were watching someone actively die and didn’t realize it,” Coleman says. “[…] Not one person knew the whole [scope….] I thought I was just going to tell the story of the first year of this festival and how this man achieved something huge […] that was his swansong, how he went out big, [etc.]. But then it became a deeper story about addiction.”
To tell the Josh/MTG story with any honesty, Coleman had no choice but to confront that addiction — Josh’s addiction, and some painful-to-rehash behavior that came with it — head-on, partly in the hope that others may be helped by hearing the hard truth.
“It is really important to me to tell the truth, for better or worse, but while respecting the monstrous weight of addiction itself,” Coleman says. “I wanted to be careful not to vilify those battling addiction, but also to shed light on the toll it takes. The best way I felt I could do that in this case was to show the impact on the people who are left behind. Sometimes it takes the love we have for others to motivate us to do things we may not do just for ourselves. […] There was a gentleman I met at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival who shared his struggle with addiction with me after he had watched the film. He is sober now, but he connected with Josh’s story.”
For all his foibles — not a person who loved him (I count myself among the lucky) would one-dimensionally beatify him; he was simply too big and gave of himself too completely for that — How to Throw Your Own Goodbye Party manages to highlight the playfulness and joy that were at Fischel’s core.
For Coleman, making the film allowed her to know Fischel in new ways. She didn’t know him at all c. 2015 when he booked her band Pebaluna for a gig — and only slightly better when a short time later she jumped at his invitation to be part of the MTG team despite her reservations that his vision for the festival sounded “too good to be true.” And when he died not much more than a year later, she knew him mostly as a boss.
“I really like [that through making the film] I got to know him as a son and a husband and a brother and a friend,” she says. “I could have walked away from Music Tastes Good knowing only this one dimension of him, but I’m so glad I’ve got this fuller picture of this man who inspired so many people. […] I’m a better person for [my experience with him], so to get to know him more fully through the eyes of others was my favorite part of [making] it.”
Abbie Fischel, Josh’s wife/partner/constant support, is “overwhelmed” that Coleman “cared enough to capture important pieces of Josh’s story in a documentary.” It’s just the kind of thing she publicly exhorted shortly after his death.
“At Josh’s memorial concert I asked people to honor his memory by going out and creating more beauty for all of us to behold, just as Josh did,” she says. “Lauren took up that calling and created a beautiful piece of art about a fellow artist, Joshie. I am so very grateful to each and every person that contributed to this good work. It was incredibly touching to hear accounts of what Josh meant to others.”
Josh’s mother, Maurine, has a more mixed reaction to How to Throw Your Own Goodbye Party. She was warned by her son Zach before seeing an early cut (Coleman held several screenings for friends and family for feedback during the editing process) that the film would be “difficult to watch.” It was.
“There were a number of revelations in the documentary — answers to questions many of us had chosen not to ask and really preferred not to know,” she says. “I was devastated and a bit angry. This [film] was not what I originally, naively, thought it would be.”
But when she saw the final version with her sister, the pair agreed that it’s well done. Although Maurine feels she has some insights into what was going on with Josh that may differ from what’s presented in the film, she appreciates that it captures Josh’s complexity and the achievement that was Music Tastes Good.
“Josh was […] a big personality, creative and talented, loving and supportive of family and friends,” she says. “[He was] also outspoken and opinionated on everything. He would envision how he thought things should be and then relentlessly figure out how to make it happen. That he figured out how to pull off Music Tastes Good was nothing short of amazing. And it’s pretty obvious he spent the last year of his life pushing to succeed with MTG while spiraling, avoiding dealing with his very real physical issue.”
“I never once thought he would risk his health and his life to do this festival,” Coleman says. “And I don’t even know to this day if he knew that’s what he was doing or just going. […] There’s part of me that felt bad for exposing so much of what he was going through, but it was necessary for the whole story. […] It might not be the film a lot of people are expecting to see, but I hope that the love that it’s told with comes across.”
All in all, Maurine Fischel hopes viewers come away feeling “Josh was a big dreamer with wild ideas and a good heart — which is what he was.”
Abbie has no doubt that it does.
“One of the things I always loved the most about Josh was the way he coaxed beauty from brokenness,” she says. “He was full of grit and fire, and that often served him well, while at other times it worked against him. This film captures much of the beauty and brokenness that was our dear Joshie. I loved every bit of who Josh was, and I miss every complexity of being a witness to his triumph and his struggle. I hope Josh is remembered for all he created, but more than that I hope his legacy inspires others to keep pushing and creating amidst pain and struggle. We are all more than our broken pieces. Josh knew that better than anyone, and he lived his life accordingly.”
To learn a bit about that life, watch How to Throw Your Own Goodbye Party