Saturday, July 30, 2005

This is NOT Spinal Tap

Just been to see DiG!, a glorious behemoth of a documentary charting the contrasting fortunes of two Portland-based bands, The Dandy Warhols and the lesser known Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Filmed over a seven year period, the story of the two bands is really the story of their two leads singers, Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe, who's divergent personalities ultimately determine the fate of their bands.

Beginning their journey as friends and collaborators, both relatively unknown and both promising to transform the musical landscape, Taylor and Newcombe end up estranged and equally embittered by their contrasting fates. In between we are treated to a genuine rollercoaster of rock excess, with Newcombe at the heart of it, continually threatening to derail the whole enterprise.

From the outset, Newcombe is like a planet (make that a supernova) around which the other band members (and the film itself) orbit. Marginalised and physically abused, they frequently quit but are invariably drawn back by the gravitational pull of Newcombe's flawed genius.

It is in its presentation of the two singers that DiG! ultimately shows its hand, painting Newcombe as 'the real deal', endlessly passionate about the music and apparently unconcerned with the superficial trappings of success and Taylor as a shallow sell-out. Newcombe's increasingly disheveled appearance is sharply contrasted with Taylor's histrionics over his make-up in a video shoot (which is taken by Newcombe as further evidence of the incompatibility of commercial success and artistic integrity).

Interestingly, Taylor (who also narrates) appears unaware, or at least unconcerned, with this portrayal, happily occupying the moral high ground when discussing Newcombe's drug use and exclaiming that "the drugs we're singing about, they're actually taking!"

Although it would be easy to criticise the filmmaker for conspiring with Newcombe's messianic delusions and presenting more myth than man, it would also be churlish. All contributors seem agreed that Newcombe is a musical genius and as Cobain and Doherty demonstrate, there's nothing like flawed genius to guarantee you a place in the rock 'n' roll pantheon.

Whilst DiG! undoubtedly revels in Newcombe's self-destructive drive and thereby risks deifying a narcissistic sadist ("He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"), it's also a rollicking good watch and provides further evidence that documentary film-making is in extremely rude health. Go watch!