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Music Movie Mondays: “It’s like a 60s movie” with the boys and girls of DiG!

July 12, 2010

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.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. evmaroon permalink
    July 13, 2010 12:14 am

    I have to watch this now! The last music documentary I saw was about Harry Smith (http://fest07.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=73) and it was awesome. So I’d love a great follow up to that.

  2. July 13, 2010 7:03 am

    Hmm. I’ve never followed either of those bands, but I remember hearing about that film from a friend a few years ago. He told me it was biased, and I didn’t like that, so I didn’t check it out. Thanks to your review, Alyx, it’s now on my list. It sounds like there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on there than I knew about, and I’m always up for seeing the wacky and frightening internal workings of the music industry. As long as I look at it all in the right context, I think I’ll enjoy it.

  3. Alyx Vesey permalink
    July 13, 2010 8:25 am

    @Evmaroon — I’ll have to check out the Harry Smith doc, as I haven’t seen it. Thanks!
    @heathereff — It’s definitely got its biases (particularly that it seems to think either of these bands are talented, though my disdain reveals my own biases), but I think it’s totally worth it for its contextualization of the music industry in the late 90s.

  4. July 13, 2010 8:50 am

    Thanks for the review, Alyx! I think it’s funny that you mention Spinal Tap-esque moments. It seems that ever since that send-up of the genre, music documentaries have had little choice but to include their own “up to 11” moments or risk being perceived as overly pompous.

  5. tanyadiva permalink
    July 13, 2010 1:37 pm

    I goody, another one I love! It really doesn’t matter if you like the BJM or the Dandies. I don’t really care for either, but I did enjoy the early output of BJM collaborator Miranda Lee Richards.

    However, it does encapsulate a big part of the 90s music scene, and the beginnings of the “if your song made it into a commercial, you reaped a small chunk of ancillary benefits” phase we’re in now. I think the Dandies did slightly better b/c they were able to tap into the Festival culture, esp. in the UK during a particular time.

    In the vein of this column, might I suggest Matthew Buzzell’s “Tell Me Do You Miss Me,” the chronicle of Luna’s last tour? Another good ‘un.

  6. July 13, 2010 9:32 pm

    I liked Dig! because it showed how assy both bands were and how ultimately, both Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe deserved each other. It’s not the best music doc out there, but it is chock full of all these great little absurdity-of-the-rock-n-roll-image moments like the rest of Brian Jonestown Massacre flipping out when Anton uses the advance money to buy sitars and delay pedals instead of cigarettes and food. The onstage freak-out/fight at the Viper Room. The stupid hats. The stylists. The diss songs. It’s a nice palate cleanser to the navelgazing of something like the Radiohead or Fugazi docs or the “look-how-great-we-were” chest pounding of the Sex Pistol docs (yes, both of them).

    I think I still love Watch Me Jumpstart, the Guided By Voices doc the most of any of the recent (uhhh… last 10 years) rock movies.

    And for the record, I do like the Fugazi doc a lot!

  7. July 14, 2010 11:41 am

    I loved this doc, even though I knew hardly anything about these bands and afterwards I immediately downloaded tracks on soulseek right after, not so much because I loved the music but because i was curious to know more context and if it really was worth such brouhaha – which it’s not, as you detail. one aspect I love about the movie is that despite the biases, you still see other truths revealed between the cracks. despite courtney’s pov, Anton comes off as more memorable and charismatic, so much so I even forgot he narrated til you mentioned it.

    BJM played a show in Chicago the weekend the movie opened here, and I regret not going to see what got said on stage!

  8. Alyx Vesey permalink
    July 14, 2010 2:30 pm

    @p0plife – They can have each other! Agreed on all counts. Except the Fugazi doc, which I haven’t seen and should get to. I do like the Radiohead doc (I’m assuming you’re taking about Meeting People Is Easy), if only for the part when some journalist says to (I believe) Thom and Jonny “You’re looking very healthy” and they look wrecked from touring.
    @Raymondj – Then DiG! did motivate you to check out their music. 🙂 Again, at the very least, music docs should make you wanna listen to something new. I’ve never had the “pleasure” of seeing the BJM, though their failed attempts at recording a set for my college station became lore.

Trackbacks

  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine In Butter: DiG! « Feminist Music Geek

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