Tuesday, June 21, 2005

DIG: Insert your own bad pun here

Don't let the media or major labels tell you otherwise. Spinal Tap hit it spot-on; Rock and roll is, most of the time, really frickin' ridiculous.

Ondi Timoner's documentary DIG (out on DVD now) acknowledges this, even as it crafts--through that documentarian's combination of sharp observation, editing, and plain old luck--something much greater than the sum of its post-modern parts.

DIG follows the course of two rock bands--The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre--over seven years. One outfit rises to a level of some prominence and financial success, while the other band shoots itself in the foot repeatedly with its self-destructive tendencies. Timoner begins her film in 1995, when Anton Newcombe, the BJM's lead singer/principal songwriter, and Courtney Taylor (the Dandies' frontman and resident mastermind) meet for the first time. Newcombe and Taylor become fast friends and mutual fans. In the first few minutes Newcombe shares the lead-off track of the Dandy Warhols' debut disc with Timoner. Newcombe, a look of child-like glee plastered on his face, assures her that his band and the Dandies stand poised to start a musical revolution.

DIG branches off from Newcombe's rock-cliche mission statement within minutes, however, and that's the beauty of it.

The Dandy Warhols net a major label deal with Capitol Records, and are soon navigating the choppy waters of the big leagues. Newcombe, conversely, rails against such a sell-out so vehemently that he repeatedly sabotages his band's shots at the big time, combusting in front of audiences of enthusiastic label reps and verbally and physically assaulting his fans and bandmates. The friendship goes south, and Anton Newcombe's already-erratic behavior gets outright psychotic.

Most rock documentaries are puff-pieces, little more than commercials for the bands or artists featured. Not here. How do I love DIG? Let me count the ways.

1) It's an engrossing character study: Anton Newcombe's Jim-Morrison-cum-Tasmanian-Devil antics elicit the most attention at first (judge for yourself if he's the genius that so many critics, label reps, and former bandmates think he is), but the movie's peopled with fascinating personalities. Courtney Taylor initially comes off as a superficial dilletante, but he ultimately emerges as a self-deprecating and eloquent guide through the music business wilderness. Then there's Joel Gion, the Brian Jonestown Massacre's impish tambourine player (Timoner compares him to a Dr. Seuss character in the DVD commentary); Dave Deresinski the long-suffering tough-love BJM tour manager; Matt Hollywood the BJM guitarist who's overshadowed by his lead singer's charisma (and temper), and many more. Cameron Crowe couldn't have written better characters.

2) It's an entertaining and thoughtul treatise on the co-existance of art and commerce: Think a major label deal is all big money and ultimate happiness, aspiring musicians? Ha, ha, double ha! Wait'll you see the Dandy Warhols slug through the whole process--warts, label sycophants, rejections, corporate apathy, and all. If you're not careful, you might learn something.

3) It's Funny as Hell: The Brian Jonestown Massacre's gig at a Communist Party Meeting Hall (to an audience of ten) is pure Spinal Tap. Ditto the BJM's comedy of errors with a Homer, GA highway patrol drug trap, and Gion's puckishly withering assessment of the Dandies' first big video shoot, to cite a few choice moments. Taylor's offhand wit likewise serves up some big laughs. At one point, when asked how many CDs his band has sold stateside, he responds, "You mean including [the ones bought by] our parents?"

4) You don't have to be a fan of either band to enjoy DIG: I do happen to like both of these outfits (sorry, Indie Snobs--sue me), and rest assured I'll cover the music in more detail in a future Blog. But there are enough twists, and there's more than enough dramatic and comedic meat here, to keep even non-converts diverted. Plus, DIG gracefully sidesteps Behind the Music-style sensationalism without sugarcoating the rock and roll lifestyle.

5) Most importantly, Timoner loves her subjects, but not too much: DIG knows that neither of these bands amounts to a drop in the pop culture bucket, and there's silly rock and roll behavior on abundant display over the course of the movie. But DIG avoids cheap jokes at its participants' expense by allowing them vulnerability. Resident BJM court jester Gion laments 'wasting four years' of his life in a rock band. Taylor beats himself over the head for not being more savvy in dealing with a major label. Even Anton Newcombe, ridiculous and hilariously histrionic as he is much of the time, has moments of lucidity; some of his comments about the music industry and his role in it are downright insightful.

There's a great scene about a third of the way through DIG that shows Newcombe alone in the studio, gradually laying down track after track of instrumentation while his fellow bandmates party with the Dandy Warhols on New Years' Eve elsewhere. Individually, the minimalist drum pounding, distorted guitars, etc. sound rough and sloppy, but when the finished song (a stark and direct ode to his estranged parents) swells in on the soundtrack, it's truly haunting.

The scene effectively conveys how rock and roll can be a strong medium of expressive catharsis--when it's not busy being frickin' ridiculous.

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