Music Movie Mondays: “It’s like a 60s movie” with the boys and girls of DiG!
I’ve always wanted to teach a class on music documentaries. I’m fascinated by them as a genre. They’re usually made independently and contain invaluable footage of the subjects, often resulting in cult followings from die-hard fans. And even when they’re marred with historical inaccuracies and misleading information — as documentaries tend to be — they can at least provoke the viewer enough to explore a band’s output.
Which is why Ondi Timoner’s DiG! is so interesting to me. I’m a big fan of the 2004 documentary, which culled together seven years of footage on The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s an engaging and important document of two rival bands who never enjoyed the success they were promised amidst alternative rock’s cultural nadir and the pending collapse of the mainstream music industry. It’s full of interesting characters, quotable dialogue, Spinal Tap-esque moments, and dramatic intrigue, as it economically illustrates why the music industry’s fatal profligacy. It’s also about two acts responsible for music of which I could care less. To my ears, both bands’ musical ambition stretches no further than the riff to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” They’re so focused on being important that they fail to be interesting.
As the documentary makes plain, both bands make the sort of music rock critics champion for its authenticity, even though they’re just stealing from 60s British bands who dropped acid and poached from black American blues artists and Middle Eastern ragas. Authenticity is important to both bands, though elusive. It’s also a term defined by both according to antiquated standards that belie their touted post-modern sensibilities. The Brian Jonestown Massacre seem like the real deal, but are so obsessed with maintaining the image of a drug-ravaged garage rock Messianic cult that they continuously sabotage gigs and forfeit contracts. The Dandy Warhols want to be The Brian Jonestown Massacre, but find corporate support from Capitol Records satisfying enough to be the soundtrack for buying a fake vintage rock tee at Urban Outfitters (note: they did break with Capitol in 2007). Both have charismatic front men. The BJM have Anton Newcombe, a mentally troubled heroin addict who constantly vociferates his genius. The Dandies are fronted by Courtney Taylor-Taylor, a vain poseur who uses skateboards and guitars as props and has a casting director’s eye for band formation. This potentially informs how he plucked keyboardist Zia McCabe from barista obscurity seemingly not as much out of skill as from the awareness that alterna-chicks sell magazines.
The main reason I like DiG! is how effectively it demonstrates the generic foibles music documentaries share with their fraternal twin the biopic. DiG is teeming with unreliable sources, including sycophantic A&R types who promise these bands the world but then fail to deliver. It is also reckless with the time line and fails to provide performance footage a proper context. It has a lazy sense of pacing, setting up an interesting premise before succumbing to sprawl as hopes are dashed and ultimately resolving itself in a truncated fashion that’s supposed to feel like triumph. Finally, it manipulates its audience into a carefully engineered narrative, casting unstable genius Newcombe and his band of outcast fuck-ups in sharp relief against the functional yet detached Warhols, who are altruistic enough to urge Capitol to sign the BJM yet soulless enough to crash their house for a photo shoot. As if we need further evidence that the workhorse Warhols are the band with whom we should orient, Taylor-Taylor narrates the documentary.
Yet I also actually enjoy this documentary. There’s a youthful exuberance to it that’s endearing. Much of it stems from young director Timoner’s personal investment in the project. While she and co-cinematographers Vasco Nunes and David Timoner get tripped up a bit, there’s still a palpable joy of storytelling. There’s also a clear attempt to honestly realize these people. I admire this greatly and it keeps me coming back to DiG!, even if it’s about musicians whose records I’ll never own.