Ego is as vital to any artist as ability. While stories surface of the unselfish performer who seems grounded in both their personality and public persona, the truth is, people don't gravitate toward a career in entertainment for their physical health or the financial windfall. Less than 1% ever become famous, or even achieve all the pleasantries and perks that go along with such a status. No, the vast majority of actors, writers, singers, songwriters, bands, musicians, directors, etc, get into the business called show to experience an inflation of their sense of self. Adoration is addictive. It's better than any drug and a helluva lot more potent. There is no other arena that offers such a skyrocket to esteem.
But sometimes, ego can undermine even the most noble of intentions. By its very definition, being centered on one's self means listening to only one voice. And when that sound is soiled by drugs, mental illness, internal struggles and/or external stresses, the accent alters and mutates from helpful to harmful. Where once there was clarity, there is now chaos. Where once a troubadour stood, now lurks a troublemaker. There is perhaps, no better example of genius squandered and ego in overdrive than Anton Newcombe. For over a decade, he has fronted one of the greatest underground rock bands ever to actually live up to said hype. Named for the famous first casualty of The Rolling Stones, and paying holy homage to the music of the mid-60s, the Brian Jonestown Massacre was poised to be the pinnacle of a post-grunge revolution.
Too bad The Dandy Warhols had to come along and swipe their sunshine. Friends and collaborators with a common interest in the cool karmic cacophony of Summer of Love sonics, The Dandys represented the pop side of the emerging scene. Before Newcombe knew it, his idol and intimate Courtney Taylor was off to Major Label land, spending Capital's money on the whole rock star shebang. Thus began a contentious relationship which ended in mixed feelings and even more muddled messages. The Brian Jonestown Massacre remained a boisterous blip on the local scene. The Dandy's exploded, becoming a hugely popular band in Europe. Amazingly, documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner was there to capture it all. For seven years she took the long strange trip from infancy to infamy with the Dandys and the Massacre. The result is DiG!, perhaps the best documentary ever made about life on the outskirts of rock and roll stardom.
Along that long strip of coastline that connects San Francisco, CA to Portland, OR, a new music scene was emerging. It based its beliefs in the power of the past, while employing the technology of the times to articulate and recreate it. Two of the best examples of this ideal were – and still are – the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. At the time, the Dandys consisted of Courtney Taylor (Guitar, Vocals), Peter Holmstrom (Guitar), Zia McCabe (Keyboards, Percussion) and Eric Hedford (Drums). The Massacre, on the other hand, had a floating menagerie of musicians involved in their sound. However, the core unit in 1997 included leader Anton Newcombe, Joel Gion (Percussion), Matt Hollywood (Bass, Guitar, Vocals), Dean Taylor (Guitar), Jeff Davis (Guitar) and Peter Hayes (Guitar). While there was a kind of casual rivalry between the bands, each acknowledged the brilliance of the other, and they supported each other in any way that they could.
Enter filmmaker Ondi Timoner. From her experiences making documentaries for MTV and VH-1, she had an idea. She would pick 10 bands from the San Fran/Portland area and make them the focus of a film. She would follow them, document their career arcs, and hope for something historic to happen. What she got, instead, was the story of one band's rise to the upper middle of the music business, while another, equally talented entity shuffled off into the self-destructive deep end. Timoner soon realized that her film, DiG!, had to be about the Dandys and the Massacre. What she captured was an amazing analogy for how both integrity and the industry destroys music and musicians. Culled from interviews, concert material, hidden camera footage and a couple of staged sequences, this fascinating film chronicles seven years in the life of two incredibly talented bands, highlighting both the fun and the frustration to be found in being a performer in the modern music maelstrom.
What is it about 2004 that made it such a stellar year for rock and roll documentaries? First came Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a film that proved that fame and personality flaws could f*ck up even the most popular metal band on the planet. Instead of celebrating the sex and drugs, the film argued that celebrity contained pains we could barely comprehend. Then there was End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, a movie that proved that even old time punks could be pissed off prima donnas when they wanted – or needed – to be. As amazing and influential as the bruddah's from Queens were, their personal interaction was more volatile and vindictive than we could possibly have imagined. Now comes DiG!, without a doubt, one of the most mesmerizing music movie experiences ever captured on film. Using the rise of the Dandy Warhols as a counterpoint to the fervent fall of Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe, Ondi Timoner's tale of talent misplaced and mistreated holds its own among the classics of the rock-doc genre. There has never been a better film at capturing the self-destructive nature of notoriety, or the desperation that comes from a desire for total acknowledgement and universal acceptance.
At its core, DiG! is a movie about commitment. It's about wanting to be an artist, or a careerist, in the often hostile waters of mainstream music stardom. At the center of this hummable hurricane are two complete polar opposites – Anton Newcombe from the psychedelic Stones-esque Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor, of the glossy groove crew known as The Dandy Warhols. They are the alleged New Age alter egos of Jagger and Richards or Lennon and McCartney, a post-modern pairing strikingly similar to the early 80s enigma or Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch. And each was mining from the same sonic crypt. Together, both the Dandys and the Massacre were locked in a sort of sunny California limbo, channeling the moment in music between Monterey Pop and electric Kool-aid acidity. The Dandys were more upbeat and bouncy. The Massacre was somber and slower. The Dandys consistently sounded like the party band for a swinging 60s celebration. The Massacre appeared to be playing the death dirges for an Altamonte after-show. Together, they threatened to bring back the head shop sounds of a blissed out era.
What differentiated the groups, aside from their frontmen and their sound, however, was the individual notions each had as to what music is really supposed to signify. For Newcombe, life as an artist meant the maintenance of credibility at all costs. It required marrying one's muse and sticking to it, in sickness and in health, 'til death – or a major label record deal – do you part. Taylor on the other hand, entertained and enjoyed the special sanctified glare of the spotlight. He's readily put on the glam rocker regalia and did a dunce's dance, as long as it got his band exposure and his songs out to the masses. Both men wanted the same sacred goal: to touch people with the noises that they made and the way that they made them. But Newcombe was never willing to sign his soul away for success. He defended his position to the detriment of everything around him – family, friends, contracts and concerts. Taylor simply let his ethos get tainted for a while, hoping it would help sell some CDs, or get a Dandy's video a few rotational spins on MTV.
That these total philosophical opposites could ever have been friends, let alone mutually considered contemporaries, is part of DiG!'s delicious premise. Taylor fawns over BJM (the scene-abbreviated nickname for the band) while Newcombe is seen shamelessly shilling for the Dandy's at the start of the film. Both are obviously fans of the other, and such a mutual admiration society is destined to get pretty prickly after a while. There is a level of healthy competition flowing between these two from the beginning, a brothers in anarchical arms principle that keeps the pop pistons pumping. Where things begin to fall apart apparently occurs right around the time that Capital Records comes calling. The Massacre is seen as the much stronger band, aesthetically, much more settled in its rock references and reality. The Dandy's are sort of dismissed as commercial kitsch, the kind of act that would be better known more for its Gap ad than their catalog of great tunes. Naturally, the far more professional Dandy's got the nod (we discover that BJM was never really in consideration), and thus begins a rather obtuse love/hate relationship between the two bands, an indecipherable exchange of hurt feelings, wounded pride and outright anger that seems based more in petty jealousy than high-minded conceits.
What's amazing about DiG! is that it does not reveal this over the short span of a tour, or in the course of the recording of an album. Unlike Some Kind of Monster, which focused on the St. Anger sessions, or End of the Century which was a retrospective look back long after the fact, DiG! is there when all of this happens, capturing it as it actually occurs. There is an immediacy and an energy in this approach that separates this sensational documentary from the rest, creating an unpredictability and a sense of suspense that heightens all the histrionics. You never know when Anton is going to implode, or when Courtney will stick another conceited foot in his already-full mouth. Fists fly, as does the faux-philosophical flowers of language. Naturally, both leaders have a crazy cast of ancillary characters surrounding them, and Anton's collective is particularly cracked. If this film makes a star out of anyone beside the formidable frontmen, percussionist Joel Gion is next on the notoriety scales. Wearing outrageous 60s sunglasses and vamping like a far more masculine Divine, Gion is the joking jester to Newcombe's tormented Lear, the nonchalant fan face of the always grave group.
The Dandys are a tad too indistinct to have such a showpiece around the outskirts of Courtney's atmosphere. As the only girl, Zia McCabe does tend to stand out, but both Peter and Eric (who later leaves the band under unclear circumstances) are more than happy with their role as sidemen. If there is one completely unhappy camper in all of DiG!, it is Massacre bassist/songwriter Matt Hollywood. Looking like an infantile John Lennon and constantly struggling with a lack of respect from Anton and the audience (who naturally assumes Newcombe does everything), Matt seems to be the most miserable of anyone in the scene Even while Anton is sliding in and out of sanity, and The Dandys are battling their indifferent label, Matt appears mired in an illogical anger fueled by a false feeling of limited recognition. It's no surprise then that he starts most of the fights, and suffers most of the insults, at the hands of his fellow bandmates. In many ways, Matt Hollywood is the voice of professionalism and reason that the Massacre refused to abide by. The friction found there really helps to define the dynamics that exist between musician and moneymakers, one of DiG!'s biggest issues.
Another thing we experience very clearly is the notion that director Ondi Timoner really cares for both of these bands. She wants to see them each do well, to succeed in an industry that has a self-described 90% failure rate. She uses her film as an exposé of sorts, showing how artists are viewed as commercial commodities, even by the most righteous record companies. When it comes down to it, Timoner argues that the current music industry is modeling itself after the blockbuster-bound, Hollywood motion picture process. It is looking for a huge, out of the gate hit, a large set of Soundscan scores and an impressive chart run before it pumps more time and effort into a band. If there is not that instant connection with the audience – and frankly, it is hard to name a band that arrives out of the gates as certified universal superstars – then the video budgets disappear and the promotion dries up like a puddle in the desert sun. DiG! debates the merits of such an approach, suggesting that the Dandys and the Massacre's best work is being ignored in the constant race for hits and airplay. Worse, the groups' artistic merits are being squandered by a desire for cash, not creativity.
All profit-margin pontification aside, DiG! is really the in-depth exploration of two incredible charismatic and complex individuals. For all his ranting and raving, Newcombe does more than just talk the talk. He walks the walk, he produces the product and believes infallibly in the power of his music. While his mental stability can be questioned, his devotion to songwriting and performing cannot. For all his narcissistic naysaying, Taylor is also a man in love with rhythms and the reasons for rock and roll. While he may come across as disaffected and aloof off stage, he and his band are a powerhouse on stage, and have crafted several sensational albums of anthemic songs. The Massacre's catalog is equally meaty, and if DiG! does nothing else, it should have you running out to your local record store – or band website – to purchase a few newfound now-favorite CDs. But this film should also function as a primer for anyone interested in making a career out of being a musician. DiG! warns of the mistaken belief that overnight sensation status is just a signature away, that companies really care about artists, or that egos can exist within the same space without crashing into each other.
In essence, DiG! is designed to show the dedication required for a life in service of one's talent. It proves that, even without jobs or a significant means of support, endowment provides its own rewards and way of life. There is no doubting that the Dandy's are more popular than the Massacre, but that is by no means a measure of aptitude or skill. Some could write off both acts as nothing more than retro-rejects digging through a treasure trove of classic cock rock chestnuts that someone else stored away for safe keeping. But that would diminish two terrific bands. If there is one minor flaw, and it's so small as to be insignificant, it's that Timoner downplays the sounds she is supposed to be celebrating, thereby leaving us unable to judge for ourselves the might in the music (unless you are a fan of both bands – which this critic is – then you already know how amazing they are). As a lesson in the unwritten rules of rock and roll, DiG! is invaluable. As a motion picture, however, it really does stands shoulder to shoulder with other classic documentaries.
Palm Pictures should be proud of the DVD package they have provided for DiG!. Without a doubt, this is one of the best digital presentations, both technically and contextually, that you will find on the market today. Even with the limited budget and production values available to director Timoner, DiG! still looks damn fine. The 1.33:1 full screen image sparkles with a fresh washed radiance that makes the multimedia aspects (the crew shot on video, digital, 16mm and 8mm film) that much more impressive. DiG! is really a collage set to collapse, a scrapbook of half-saved snippets and pristine EPK material mixed into a frothy foam of filmic finery. The resulting transfer is terrific, keeping completely with the DIY spirit of the subject and their philosophies. Everything, from the framing to the editing, the compositions and the mastering looks miraculous. The director of DiG! couldn't have asked for a better visual representation of her film.
As glorious as the visual side of the palette plays, the sonic situation is equally astounding. There are two separate soundtracks here – one each in Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1 – and both are brilliant. Naturally, conversations are clear and dialogue is always discernable. But it's the music that really reverberates in the mix. Timoner makes the wise choice of dubbing in the recorded versions of songs featured in the concert footage, making sure we have the best possible version of the tunes available. It can sound a little weird, seeing the Dandy's play something that really couldn't be captured live, but this doesn't take away from the authority of the noise. Many of the live sets are kept intact however, and they have a power and a presence all their own.
Where DiG! really excels, however, is in the bonus feature arena. Spread out over two discs, the compendium of complimentary and supplementary material offered here is mind bending. Disc 1 contains a collection of commentaries (three in all), and an interactive technology called Link-Outs. For those of you familiar with New Line's Infinifilm DVDs, Link-Outs are very similar. A little icon appears in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, and when you hit the 'enter' button on your remote, you are whisked away to deleted scenes and outtakes from the film. The interesting thing is that many of these moments are necessary to understand both the context and the circumstances of the sequences being shown. You get approximately 10 Link-Outs on the first DiG! DVD, and each one is crucial to the narrative drive of the movie.
The remaining material on Disc 1 is made up of commentaries. One contains the participation of ex-members of the Brian Jonestown Massacre – Matt Hollywood, Joel Gion, Miranda Lee Richards, Dean Taylor and ex-manager Dave Derinski. The former Massacre men are ruthless, letting go with a steady stream of jibes and quips, making it very clear on what side of the story their interests still remain. For a band that appeared on the verge of a brawl every few moments, they get along surprisingly well here, even laughing at the times when Anton is at his worst. While it would have been nice to hear what the elusive, egomaniacal leader thought of this film (see below), at least we get the chance to hear how others outside his circle of influence were affected by the movie. Fortunately, it appears everything turned out for the best for all involved.
On track two, the Dandys are, naturally, all present and accounted for. Courtney leads the way most of the time, and it takes a while for the rest of the band to join in. But once they do, we learn a great deal about the amount of fun they had, and frustration they faced, during this particular time in their career. Even years later, the group is still touting the Massacre as one of the greatest acts ever, and provide a few drug-fueled anecdotes about their times with Anton and the boys. If the Massacre spend their time refuting facts and setting the record straight, Courtney enjoys re-explaining himself. He is not really sorry for some of the sillier things he said in the film – he just believes they need a little additional clarification.
Perhaps the most unbiased alternate narrative comes from Timoner, her brother David, and cinematographer Vasco Nunes. The director laments that she can't show her original, five hour cut of the film (the movie was culled from over 2000 hours of material) and describes, in detail, the instances of dramatic license that were necessary for narrative clarity. She also sheepishly acknowledges that both bands now seem to lament their participation in this project. Genial, and very engaging this commentary provides the final piece in the perplexing puzzle that is DiG! It allows us to understand all sides of the issue, with Anton being the only noticeably absent voice.
Disc 2 starts us off with another two hours of footage, amazing material that had to be cut from the film or condensed in order to get the running time under control. Make sure you spend time with these sequences, otherwise you'd never learn of how Joel violated FAA regulations by flying with a fake ID, how the Dandys reacted to their first taste of fame, or Anton's opinions on Charles Manson and the madman's music. In addition, we can see both the Dandys and the Massacre in full rock show mode as the DVD provides three Dandys videos ("TV Theme Song", "Last High", "Bohemian Like You") and three live clips (for "Oh Lord", "Jesus" and "Anemone") from the Massacre. In addition, Courtney and Anton sit down for an impromptu jam that is caught on film, and we get a lot of footage from when the film premiered (and walked away with awards) at the Sundance Film Festival.
Anyone interested in the current status of the Dandys or the Massacre will also enjoy the "Where Are They Now?" sequences. We catch up with Joel, Matt Hollywood, ex-Dandy drummer Eric Hedford, the Dandys themselves and additional members of the Massacre. Each installment is incredibly entertaining, and allows some perspective to filter in. Naturally, the Dandys come off the best, as Zia and Peter have each gotten married and the band have used some video money to buy a performance space that they have labeled the Odditorium. Perfectly packaged in a gatefold case that makes the DVD appear like a book, DiG! does deserve to be recognized as some manner of rock and roll encyclopedia. Both the movie and the discs pack in so much material that it's hard to feel uninformed after it's all over.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that, on his band's website, Anton Newcombe condemns DiG! as being a "Jerry Springer-esque" representation of his personality and the problems with the band. Reiterating his stance that his time and his talent are not for sale, he is saddened by what he sees as a "lowest common denominator" approach to his mind and his music. Even a decade and a series of debacles later, he is still functioning with a fully formed, almost omnipresent ego. He is still making records (as a matter of fact, Tee Pee Records has just put out an amazing retrospective on the band, a 2 CD set called Tepid Peppermint Wonderland) and working with a new set of Massacre maniacs.
But one still senses that Anton has, somehow, completely missed the big picture here. A post mortem declaration of genius, by its very nature, falls on the deafened ears of the one who wishes to hear it the most. Ethics or not, there is nothing really wrong with success. Both can occur, especially in an age where technology is teaching the recording industry a thing or two about fan demand and mean-spirited monopolies. If anyone should embrace the power of the people over the current crooked corporate system, it should be Newcombe. It's what he's fought for his entire career. Too bad he's too lost in his own ephemera to realize it. There is a world ready to buy into what he has to say – this amazing movie more than proves it. We can DiG! it Anton. You should DiG! it too.
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