DiG! is director Ondi Timoner’s recounting of roughly seven years in the lives of two West Coast alternative rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre (The name is taken from 1. Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones who was kicked out the band for his excessive lifestyle and drowned soon afterward, under the influence of alcohol and sedatives, and 2. the 1978 murders and mass suicide of cult leader Jim Jones and his followers at their encampment in Guyana). Initially, the two bands are friends, sharing a similar retro-’60s sound and a desire to bring integrity and solid musicianship— “revolution”—to the bland, commercial mid-’90s music scene (that they attempt to do this by mimicking a 30-year-old style is the film’s great, unacknowledged joke). They play shows together, often joining one another on stage; they live near one another and talk of building a studio together and “taking over the world.” But over time the Dandys’ earnest work ethic and more commercial, hooky sound leads them closer to major success, while drug use and internal conflicts tear BJM apart.
Timoner and her collaborators, Vasco Lucas Nunes and her brother David, met the two bands in 1996 and traveled with them off and on until 2003, getting to know them intimately and shooting approximately 1,500 hours of footage. She captured many highs (getting the big record deal, playing sold-out shows, shooting a video with famed photographer David LaChapelle) and lows (drug binges, fistfights, arrests) and has structured them in a way that’s as fascinating as it is maddening.
In Anton Newcombe, BJM’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Timoner has created a train wreck that no CGI effects could top. Egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, prone to violent rages, and frequently strung-out on heroin, Newcombe makes Courtney Love look like Dick Cheney. It’s his dream (and that of his bandmates and the Dandys) to recreate the psychedelic era in every detail, from the huge sideburns and silly tunics to the drug-induced public flameouts. The problem, as is succinctly assessed by a friend and fellow musician, Miranda Lee Richards, is that “all those ’60s bands did drugs, but they got famous first.” But Newcombe doesn’t seem to want to become famous; his breakdowns are curiously scheduled to coincide with each new opportunity for success.
There’s a great deal of talk in the movie about Newcombe’s musical genius, from members of both bands, various A&R people, and, not least, Newcombe himself, but there’s little evidence on hand. He comes off as painfully self-indulgent and inarticulate, a poseur. His band sounds like an agreeable pastiche of psychedelic late-’60s pop, with the requisite exotic instrumentation (sitar, tamboura, harmonium, etc.), but it’s no more groundbreaking than Oasis or Lenny Kravitz. Still, he’s convinced himself he’s that last true artist; that everyone else is a sell-out, with the possible exception (he’s never really convinced) of his band and his good friends the Dandys. But when the other band gets the major-label record deal that continues to elude the BJM, he turns viciously against them. He’s no less difficult, though, with his own bandmates. A conflict with the BJM’s other songwriter, Matt Hollywood (who looks exactly like John Lennon, c. ‘66), leads to onstage fistfights and spiteful attempts to undermine Hollywood’s performances. But at least he gets enough screen time that I caught his name—so much time is spent on Newcombe’s tirades and self-aggrandizing pronouncements that the other band members barely register at all, with the notable exception of their tambourine and maraca player (!) Joel Gion, an affable, impish fellow who serves as the movie’s comic relief and BJM’s heart.
The Dandys, led by the lanky, epicene Courtney Thomas (he also narrates the film) are depicted as the cheerful, well-adjusted alter egos of the troubled BJM. They aren’t tortured by notions of artistic integrity; they’re having fun making music that’s catchy and enjoyable, and they take you along for the ride. Their song “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” was written in part as a response to the drug use of Newcombe and BJM (actually, a number of their songs could be seen as reactions to their relationship), and there’s a scene in which Taylor plays the song for Newcombe on his car’s cassette deck. It’s just been recorded and is planned as their first single. Everyone at the label is predicting a huge hit, and Taylor is looking for feedback from the musician he most respects. Newcombe listens in a silence that grows increasingly uncomfortable; it’s clear that he knows the song has potential and that he likely perceives Taylor’s jab at him. Taylor apparently thinks little of it, though, even when Newcombe parodies the song, with a nearly identical melody, in “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth.” In a scene mirroring the earlier one, Thomas sits in the BJM’s tour van and listens to the song. He laughs it off good-naturedly and joins his friends on tour, performing with them that same night. But eventually Newcombe goes far beyond gentle ribbing, and what ostensibly started off as a harmless publicity-stunt rivalry (dreamed up and instigated by Newcombe without informing the Dandys) becomes threatening and the two bands cease all contact.
From here, it’s pretty easy to predict the rest of the film. The Dandys have some limited success, eventually becoming huge in Europe, where they’re shown playing to sold-out arenas. Newcombe spirals ever deeper. Given a record deal by TVT, a large independent label (it’s New York-based and unaware of his reputation on the West Coast) with the power and the desire to promote the band while allowing Newcombe artistic freedom, he’s shown going into a months-long heroin binge. Unable to function sufficiently to make good use of the studio TVT has built in the band’s home, he starts fights that lead to a complete breakup.
We’re never convinced we’re getting the full picture, though. In his narration, Taylor describes the entire band as getting deeper into heroin use and more undependable and self-destructive, but only Newcombe’s drug problem is dramatized. He’s made out as the film’s villain, victimizing anyone who dares to get close to him, yet all of these people admired and respected him at some point (and many still do—even at the film’s close, in their final summations, the Dandys all continue to insist on Newcombe’s musical genius, even suggesting that his work is far greater than their own), so how did he ever draw them to him? Perhaps the filmmakers, having spent seven years with Newcombe, assumed his magnetism was obvious, but it’s not, not the way they depict him. He comes across as consistently repellant; the only times he displays any sort of affability, it’s shown as shameless toadying, as when he’s stopped by Georgia state troopers or is speaking to record company executives.
Other significant issues are glossed over. What of the record he was working on for TVT—we’re never told if it was finished (it was, in 1998, under the title Strung Out in Heaven). We’re told Newcombe has a son, but there’s no mention of a mother. (He does think of himself as Christ-like—as Gion hilariously parodies at one point—but not even Newcombe is capable of Immaculate Conception. The mother is the actress Tricia Vessey. It’s also never mentioned that Sophie, a young Frenchwoman who appears in early scenes, described as his girlfriend, was actually married to Newcombe for a year.) In one of his final scenes, he’s playing the Troubadour in L.A. six months after the breakup, and the voiceover and establishing shot lead you to believe he’s on stage alone. Then we realize there are other musicians onstage, and there’s no explanation. Timoner leaves Newcomb there, in a particularly ignominious 1998 incident, while she follows the Dandys up to 2003, using some scenes out of chronological sequence, so that it appears that some of their successes came earlier, concurrent with particularly low moments for Newcombe.
DiG! also gives the impression that the BJM was over after the breakup during the Strung Out in Heaven sessions, leaving Newcombe to a depressing series of druggy solo performances. I left the theater wondering if he was dead or alive. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Newcomb reformed the BJM with all-new members (I’ve read that as many as 50 musicians have passed through the band since its inception in 1990, often due to conflicts with Newcombe) and has since toured repeatedly and recorded several other albums, with another due next month. In a statement on the BJM website, he also claims he kicked heroin five years ago, though reports of his behavior at shows in the last few years belie his contention.
Timoner has shaped the incidents for a melodramatic effect, giving us good guys who prosper and a bad guy who self-destructs. This is documentary filmmaking of the Michael Moore variety, ignoring inconvenient facts and structuring events to fit a worked-out narrative rather than simple chronology. Moore’s manner has many defenders, but I’m not one of them. To present this material to an audience as fact is simply unethical. But the problem here isn’t just the manipulation of the events; it’s the insulting oversimplification of a complex reality in service of a bad narrative idea. I don’t doubt that Newcombe is a self-aggrandizing prick; Timoner hangs him with his own words within 20 minutes—and then goes on to hang him over and over again for another 95 minutes. (At around the 30-minute mark, I wrote in my notes, “Tired of Anton. Want something else.”) She caught so many great flameouts on camera that she can’t pick her favorites; she just keeps piling them up until they become repetitious. Watching the film, we like the Dandys; Taylor and his bandmates (Zia McCabe, Peter Loew, and Eric Helford, who is replaced by Brent DeBoer after a conflict with Taylor of which we hear, significantly, only Taylor’s side) are fun and we want to spend time with them, but we’re continually thwarted by another of Newcombe’s psychotic episodes.
I have to admit that I enjoyed most of the film while I was watching it; the music is fun and the bands are interesting to watch, whether they’re at their best or at their worst. It’s afterward, in thinking over the narrative disconnects and doing some research to bridge them, that I began to reconsider the film. It is entertaining, and for fans of either band or anyone curious about the inner workings of the music industry, it provides a lot of interesting scenes. But it does a disservice to its audience and, more significantly, its subjects, taking their lives and making a lie of them.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him here.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()