Miranda Sawyer - Battle of the bands
Film - On-the-road hell with the monsters of rock. By Miranda Sawyer
Another week, another documentary. DiG! is the end product of a seven-year, 1,500-hour-long project by the director Ondi Timoner based around two underground US bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It's an itchy watch for anyone who's been near pop culture in the past 15 years (which is, of course, everyone in the western world). There are all the familiar cliches: self-conscious cool; destructive drug-taking; people who say "rad" and "we're gonna start a revolution", often in the same sentence. Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre is hailed as a "genius" so often you would think Einstein, or even Michael Jackson, had never existed. It makes you resent him, especially given that it can be hard to discern his musical talent - which is mostly for late-1960s psychedelia - behind his nasty, raving persona.
Newcombe is a monster, no doubt about it. Insanely jealous, he starts a hate campaign against his long-term friends the Dandy Warhols simply because they sign a deal with Capitol. He rages against a girlfriend who tries to get him off heroin. He drives away his long-term manager, and then most of his band. Towards the end of the film, the Brian Jonestown Massacre has been reduced from a five- or six-piece (it's hard to tell, members come and go so frequently) to just Newcombe and a girl. When an audience member shouts that she should go solo, Newcombe kicks him full in the face.
Still, there is no denying that the man has something. The stare-iest pair of eyes since Charles Manson, for a start. Newcombe is the anti-hero of this film, the glorious failure, the uncompromising no-sell-out, the man who should have been. "I don't do anything wrong, that's why I don't say sorry," he bellows at his guitarist during an argument. This from a man who took his band to the verge of a major-label record deal, only to blow it by starting a proper, roll-around, on-stage fight during their vital showcase gig. "They broke my fucking sitar," he moans afterwards.
By contrast, the Dandy Warhols (whose singer, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, narrates this film) come across as class swots. They've got the right outfits, sure, and Taylor-Taylor's chemical consumption would be impressive in any other company, but they are unwilling to go all the way to the dark side, to throw away their chances of pop triumph. They understand the compromise of success.
Despite this, their tale is just as cautionary as the Brian Jonestown Massacre's. Their new record label, Capitol, which signs them for a lot of money, insists on filming a $500,000, David LaChapelle-directed video for their first single. It's a flop, and Capitol instantly goes cold on the Dandys, refusing to promote, or even pick, a second single. You understand that bands can fail in many ways. Musicians' naivety, their belief that they are savvier, cooler, more talented than any other band, is actually no more than that - a belief. You can have all the belief in the world, and even all the songs, but still fail.
At one point, an expert sums up the music business thus: "I don't think there's another industry in the world that can have a 90 per cent failure rate and be considered successful." The Dandys come very close to becoming part of that nine out of ten, until a mobile-phone company decides to use their flop first single as a jingle in Britain. Their fortunes are reversed by something as naff, un-rock'n'roll and corporate-whorish as a phone ad.
Timoner's filming style - hand-held, intimate - brings everyone closer than is actually comfortable: you live through on-the-road hell, you understand inter-band tensions, how each different personality starts to grate. It's the flip side of pop's shiny surface: no one sane would want to live like this. No money, no support - it's hard work, even when you're not stoned out of your scratchy mind. Only one character, Joel Gion of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is consistently likeable. A curly-haired loon with the facial expressions of the Cat in the Hat, Gion appears to be in the band simply to get zonked and play the tambourine. He is the light relief. By his reckoning, Newcombe has chucked him out of the band about 21 times. That becomes 22 during the film.
According to recent interviews with Timoner, Newcombe hates DiG!. But then he hates anything he doesn't control. Actually, he and the Dandys should be grateful for Timoner's dedication to their respective causes. What is ironic about the film is that you can see, despite the strife and corporate stitch-ups, that both bands are good. Not geniuses, maybe, but really worth your while. The Brian Jonestown Massacre (including Gion) played at Patti Smith's Meltdown Festival in London just last month; the Dandy Warhols have a new LP out soon. See this film, be glad they're not your friends, and check out the music.
Mark Kermode is away