Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Admit it: despite all modern evidence to the contrary, you think documentary films are boring. No matter how many cool, interesting, unique, and riveting documentaries you may have seen in your life, any time one is mentioned, or the prospect of seeing one is discussed, there’s a part of your brain that imagines the slow plodding pacing of Ken Burns’ Jazz, hour nine, and groans in anticipated agony. Hell, I WORK with documentary films, and am currently trying to make one of my very own, and yet I have actively chosen to watch movies that I have either seen before, or KNOW will suck, rather than pop one into my DVD player.
Well, let this article serve as a reminder to you and me: Documentaries KICK ASS.
In exactly the same way that a live performance is always better than a taping of that same experience, so too does a fiction film suffer, at some level, from the very fact that it IS fiction. Put it this way: each and every one of us has watched thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people killed on screen. I’m betting that none of us lose any sleep over seeing this. And yet, if someone handed us a film of an actual person actually getting killed (which, just so we’re all clear, is completely illegal) we would either not be able to bring ourselves to watch it, or be haunted by those images for the rest of our lives. That is the power of “real,” over scripted, pieces.
This is all well and good, but if you were standing in front of a movieplex, and had a choice between a stripped-down, bare-bones documentary film telling a story that interests you, or a “Hollywoodized” version of the same story, complete with name stars, special effects and an overwrought score, which one would you go see?
I would too, at least up until I saw Dig.
Dig is simply the story of two bands, captured on film over the course of seven years (the word “simply” being used ironically in every conceivable way). The two bands in question are The Dandy Warhols, who you’ve probably heard of, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, of which you probably haven’t. At the start of the movie, the bands are best friends. Both are relatively unknown, and seem more interested in drugs and partying than they are in “making it” in the world of music. Over the course of the film, one of the bands rises to the height of wealth, fame, and popularity, while the other destroys itself, and nearly each other.
The less interesting story first:
The Dandy Warhols are a small band that plays small venues. Their lead singer and songwriter is a guy named Courtney Taylor, and he’s quite driven to make it big. Eventually, TDW gets noticed, and are signed to a major label. They are given assurances that, while still a business, their backers are music lovers at heart. TDW will get say in the direction of the band, the music, the videos and singles, etc. Their first single is chosen, and David LaChapelle is tapped to direct the music video. Things are looking up.
The first problem occurs when Courtney disagrees with some of the things that LaChapelle wants to do. In the ensuing diva fit, LaChapelle walks out on the shoot. The single is released, and it receives little notice. Then, the label picks the next single to be released, even though Taylor was not consulted, and does not agree with the choice. When that song too fails to catch fire, it seems as though the record company gives up on TDW before they’ve even gotten started.
Several years later, TDW releases its next album, called Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia. The music is edgy and unique (I’m pretty sure it’d be called “Alt-Rock” by those people who need to classify everything), but released right at the height of the “boy band” craze of bubble-gum pop songs with no substance or depth. In other words, this album fails like the first one, all but guaranteeing that there will be no opportunity for a third.
But, right when all seems lost for TDW, there is a miraculous turn of events. Eighteen months after the release of Urban Bohemia, a cell phone company in England uses one of the singles in their commercial, and it becomes a monster hit. They immediately set out on a European tour, and find themselves performing in front of packed arenas full of crazed fans.
When we last see the band, they are basking in the glow of ultimate musical success. They are now a huge band, the members are all rich, and they are contemplating what to do with their new lot in life. (I’m pretty sure that Courtney mentions something about wanting to start a community for artists, but since we all know that talk like that is bullshit, I stopped paying attention.)
That story is interwoven with this one:
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, while technically a collaborative band, is really almost entirely the brainchild of Anton Newcombe. Newcombe is described by every single person in this film as a musical genius on par with Dylan and Lennon; at one point, Courtney Taylor confesses that he feels as though Newcombe is constantly three years ahead of everyone else musically. EVERYONE who sees TBJM perform is convinced that they will be the biggest band ever.
In fact, it becomes clear that the only thing bigger than the band’s potential, is the subconscious desire of its leader to destroy it.
The first time TBJM gets noticed by the industry, an executive is so excited by what she sees that she signs them on the spot. Their future is assured, as long as they perform well for her boss, who must approve all band signings. A gig is set up specifically for this purpose, and Newcombe absolutely sabotages the set. He is belligerent to the audience, can’t finish the songs, and allows the show to culminate/devolve into a fight with his band members. Shockingly, the label passes on them.
At about this time, they hear about the deal that The Dandy Warhols have signed, and they show up at the taping of the video. Far from being happy for TDW, Newcombe and the rest of TBJM mock their friends and their video, and accuse them of selling out. (It is also worth noting that we see the moment that Courtney Taylor first plays for Anton Newcombe the song that is the basis for this video, and while Taylor is very excited about it, it’s obvious that Newcombe is unimpressed). TBJM then apparently embark on a campaign to discredit (or destroy) their old friends. They record an entire album making fun of TDW which they give out at TDW’s concerts, and Newcombe even hand-delivers them a package at one point which includes (among other things) two shotgun shells which he urges them to use on themselves. (TBJM will later claim that these stunts were all part of a ploy to set up a fictional rivalry between the two bands, so the ensuing attention would increase both their record sales.)
Soon after this, TBJM decides to go on a coast-to-coast tour, with no backing or promotion. There is footage of the band playing for ten hours in front of a crowd of about a dozen people. There are shots of the vicious fight the band got into with each other in Chicago, which resulted in two members wandering the streets all night long, and the others wondering if they will be forced to abandon them. Finally, there is footage of the band in New York City, playing music on the subway, impressing the other riders, and eventually catching the eyes and ears of yet another music industry executive.
At this point, I might have my timeline a bit confused, but since the entirety of TBJM’s story at this point is a complete train wreck, I feel that specific details can be sacrificed in the name of the overall tone. Therefore, here are some highlights:
TBJM goes on a tour of Southern States, but before they get to even their first city, they are pulled over by a cop. Despite Newcombe’s politeness and agreeability, they search the car and find all manner of illegal drugs. The band members are arrested, and the tour is suspended.
TBJM gets signed again, and the label allows Newcombe to set up a studio in his own house, so he can record and play whenever the inspiration hits him. However, Newcombe starts using heroin to keep himself up for this task, and as a result he is unable to complete the record.
TBJM begins feuding with each other terribly, often getting violent with each other on stage. At one particularly rough encounter, Newcombe starts playing and singing a song by Matt Hollywood, a TBJM band-member and Newcombe’s best friend. This song is his baby, and Hollywood always sings it. With this final betrayal, Hollywood quits the group again, and this time it’s final. The entire band dissolves soon after.
Newcombe, now on his own, begins performing as a solo act. By this time, he has a reputation, and it’s hypothesized that as many people come to hear his songs as do to see if he’s going to lose his shit on stage. On one particularly troubling night, he announces to the crowd that his son has just been born that night, and he is going to visit him after the show. Unfortunately, he gets angry at a fan, and when that fan answers Newcombe’s challenge to come to the stage, Newcombe kicks him in the face. As a result, Newcombe is arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, and a court order is issued forbidding him ever to see his new boy.
The film ends, appropriately enough, with Newcombe playing a song on his guitar. He is outside, and alone. Despite all documentary evidence to the contrary, it must be concluded that this is exactly what he prefers.
It would be difficult for me to adequately express just what is so incredible about this film experience. Certainly, it is wildly ironic that two bands tracked over seven years would have such drastically different career arcs. Even more remarkable is the fact that the filmmaker had the vision and the audacity to film for that long, racking up over 2000 hours of footage for the project. And it just lucky that, with Taylor at the top and Newcombe at the bottom, he would find such a perfect stopping point after so long in the field.
However, for my money, the most remarkable thing about Dig is the fact that everything I described above is something that you not only hear about, but actually SEE. Let me tell you, the most award-winning performance by the most A-list actor, depicting somebody destroying their life, can NOT prepare you for the real thing. For example, right after the scene where TBJM visits TDW on the set of their video, they are next seen in their van, laughing and mocking TDW for selling out. As they laugh, one of the guys straps a belt to his upper arm. Did I mention that the song they are mocking is about drug use? They rip apart their friends for writing a song denouncing drugs, then allow themselves to get filmed SHOOTING UP HEROIN as they laugh about it. I’m tell you, it’s JARRING. As for Newcombe himself, you can read Anna Karenina and Confederacy of Dunces as many times as you like, and you might never actually believe that a real human being could ever act in a manner so counter-productive to their lives. However, with Anton, we have clear proof that it happens.
I watched this movie in an almost constant state of slack-jawed amazement, and at least a half-dozen times I shouted out loud at what was happening. I have NEVER had that reaction in a movie before, and as such I have to conclude that this was one of the most entrancing, exasperating, and compelling films I have ever seen in my life.
Now, if only it could have been fictionalized and diluted; THEN maybe we all would have seen it sooner.