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In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Destigmatizing Drug Use Has Been a Profound Mistake,” journalists Keith Humphreys and Jonathan Caulkins describe a New York advertising campaign called “Let’s Talk Fentanyl,” which advises subway riders, “don’t be ashamed you are using, be empowered you are using safely.” Another billboard campaign in San Francisco depicts an ecstatic-looking group of partying young people and advises passerby to “do it (use opioids) with friends,” rather than warning them not to use opioids to begin with.  These kinds of destigmatization campaigns, the authors conclude, “may delay the learning (that drugs are dangerous), draw out the epidemic, invite new cohorts to try hard drugs, and create more addicted people.”

Producers Jeffrey A. Freundlich & David Hilker behind the scenes of Pistoleros

Consider as a useful alternative and necessary corrective to these clueless campaigns Steven B. Esparza’s gritty new rock documentary Pistoleros: Death, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll from EchoHouse Films, available on Apple TV+.  The story of the ill-fated rock group Pistoleros, its charismatic front man, Lawrence Zubia, and his long-suffering and estranged brother Mark Zubia, the documentary was described by the Arizona Republic as “a life-affirming story of recovery and redemption” and by EchoHouse Films as “inspiring,” but it is hardly either one of these things.  It is, instead, a tragedy about wasted talent and shredded lives, the result of rampant drug and alcohol use by Lawrence Zubia, a “master manipulator of getting drugs.” Zubia’s friend and one-time bandmate, former Gin Blossoms co-founder Doug Hopkins, was himself an alcoholic, and when Hopkins committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, it is Lawrence Zubia who discovers the body — and makes the crucial mistake of looking closely at Hopkins’ destroyed face, an “extremely graphic” image that will go on to haunt Zubia for his remaining time on Earth.  That experience, and Zubia’s chronic back pain leading to four major back operations, lead him down the slippery slope of opioid addiction, and there’s nothing in the least “empowering” or “life-affirming” about it.  Lawrence Zubia’s anguished recounting of his addiction, his suicide attempt — driving 130 miles an hour into a highway sign — and his failed attempts at detox and recovery, form the heart of this wrenching documentary.  He died of alcohol-induced pancreatitis not long after his participation in this film and no, that’s not a “spoiler” — the film’s title, and its subject matter, say it all.  

Lawrence Zubia – Singing

In addition to drug abuse and wasted potential, this documentary is also about the essential selfishness of suicide, whether of the sudden and violent kind that Doug Hopkins chose, having given no thought before dying to the trauma that would be suffered by whoever discovered his body, or the slow-motion kind that Lawrence Zubia chose.  As a bandmate says, “if you’re gonna do something like that, do it somewhere where we never find your body.  Just disappear.  Because I don’t want to explain to your children where their dad went.” 

Belt Buckle

Pistoleros were a talented band, signed first by the Disney-owned major label Hollywood Records and, after sluggish sales, by Fervor Records.  Listening to their music today, it’s not necessarily clear that they ever would have had huge breakout success, but songs like “I’m Concerned” and “Did You Wake Up Alone” demonstrate that they could have gone a lot further than they did, had not drugs, alcohol and “suicidal ideation” destroyed Lawrence Zubia’s life and the life of his family — not the least his kid brother Mark, now a solo artist and leader of the group Los Guys.  As Mark says, “I wasn’t gonna be emotionally blackmailed… I’m not into helping people who are not helping themselves any more… Get away from anyone who’s not gonna appreciate you…and is gonna bring you down, you’ve gotta take care of yourself.”

Mark Zubia

It is clear that, during the making of this documentary, Steven Esparza did indeed envision a story of redemption, reconciliation between the two brothers, and the Pistoleros’ continued success in the music industry.  That’s why the coda is so distressing, and such an important corrective to the fairy tale that drug use is a private decision that affects only the user.  This solid, sobering and absorbing documentary is well worth viewing for anyone struggling with their own drug addiction or the addiction struggles of someone they love. 

Photos: Courtesy of Pistoleros: Death, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll

This film is available on DVD, VOD/digital platforms, local cable, and satellite providers, including Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay Movies & TV, YouTube, Pluto TV, and Tubi. The film was released in North America by EchoHouse Films, in association with Six Zero Deuce Film Group

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