The hardest part about loving music is realizing, in hindsight, how much great stuff passed completely under your radar over the years. Although I've been a fan of The Flaming Lips---Oklahoma City's most wonderfully strange rock export---for roughly 10 years now, they've been at it almost non-stop since 1983. Comparing their earliest work to recent material is truly apples vs. oranges; to say they've changed over the years would be an understatement. They're one of only a handful of bands still relevant after several decades together---better still, they're producing the most mature and exciting material of their careers right now, having been on a real hot streak in the studio since 1993.
Strangely enough, 1993 was when most people first heard of (and soon forgot) The Flaming Lips, right around the time when "She Don't Use Jelly" slowly became a pop hit on the American Top 40 charts. Of course, there were tons of other great songs on Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, thanks in part to the addition of two talented new band members: guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd. This was the second album the group had produced since signing with Warner Bros. in 1991, but the next few albums would set the bar even higher. 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic was the first album of theirs that I remember purchasing on its release date, and it really showed an improved musical focus and attention to detail that their earliest albums didn't quite have. Unfortunately, the band suffered through a series of setbacks the following year---including the departure of Jones, the near-amputation of Drozd's hand after a spider bite, and a serious hit-and-run accident involving founding member Michael Ivins---that nearly made The Flaming Lips collapse from the inside out. Luckily, a terrific concept album would save them in 1997.
Nothing quite prepared me for Zaireeka, and I wasn't alone. This 4-disc set was unlike any other album: the product of a sonic experiment dreamed up by the Lips' founding father and frontman, Wayne Coyne (seen at top), Zaireeka was perhaps the first CD whose liner notes read more like an instruction booklet. To be properly played, each of the discs would be loaded into separate CD players and started at the same time. The four "parts of the whole" would create a true surround sound experience, resulting in a strange combination of team effort and ear-splitting euphoria. I've only had the chance to listen to it properly a handful of times since then, but it's been a memorable experience each time (and it always wins over a few new fans). It was an extremely polished---and yet utterly chaotic---effort by a trio who only continue to impress in the years to come.
1999 marked the band's most critically acclaimed step forward, The Soft Bulletin; this collection of songs was actually conceived during the Zaireeka sessions, but didn't quite fit into the album's bizarre format. It also marked the Lips' new-found focus on the actual production work of an album, and their attention to detail really paid off---for proof, just put on a pair of headphones and enjoy. They would continue the trend with 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a similarly produced album which was every bit as satisfying as its predecessor. They've even recently re-issued Yoshimi in 5.1 Surround (with plans to do the same for The Soft Bulletin), and a new studio album---tentatively titled At War With the Mystics---will likely be released by the time 2005 comes to a close. Also in production is Christmas on Mars, a film starring (and scored by) the band members. Coyne even built most of the detailed set designs from scratch. Doesn't this guy sleep at night?
In other words, there are plenty of new and exciting things on the horizon for The Flaming Lips---a phenomenal achievement, considering the band was around for ten years before Transmissions From the Satellite Heart was released. An ever-changing lineup of members over the last 20+ years---including Coyne's younger brother Mark as lead vocalist from 1983-1986 and guitarist Jonathan Donahue from 1989-1991 (who left to concentrate for Mercury Rev, perhaps the Lips' sonic second cousin)---is the primary reason for the band's dramatic change in style, but a number of personal events helped trigger the gradual evolution of their sound as well.
A great deal of the most important events in the Lips' long history can be seen firsthand in The Fearless Freaks, a new documentary by long-time fan and established filmmaker Bradley Beesley (who incidentally directed the bulk of the group's music videos). There's scenes from the earliest concerts, vintage home movies, interviews with former bandmates and a wealth of newer chats with the current lineup of members: Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins (both members since 1983) and Steven Drozd (since 1991). Presented in rough chronological order---from childhood memories to the first self-titled EP in 1984 to Christmas on Mars---almost no stone is left unturned, though the series of events in 1996 aren't really mentioned. Still, there's more than enough material to entertain fans of the band: after all, where else could you see a band's frontman (and two young Vietnamese kids) re-enact a robbery at the Long John Silvers where he worked for almost 11 years?
There are countless more tales to be told---including an even better robbery story recited by Coyne on the optional commentary track---that range from fond memories to things they'd soon forget. Drozd is the subject of perhaps the film's most moving chapter, where his addiction to heroin was met with support by his bandmates rather than dismissal. Recollections from parents (including Coyne's mother, who passed away in 2004 during filming), wives, and siblings elevate Fearless Freaks from a fly-on-the-wall documentary to a genuine portrait of a band who really deserved to have their portrait painted. Maybe they'll never achieve mainstream success---or maybe they will---but the band's incredible work ethic and dedication ensure that their best years lie ahead of them.
While the film itself is great news for Flaming Lips fans, the DVD release is even better news. Brought to us by the fine folks at Shout Factory, Fearless Freaks arrives in a fine 2-disc package with a good technical presentation and several interesting bonus features. It's not often that one of the best documentaries of the year gets a great DVD release to boot, but this one does a terrific job of covering the bases. It's an extremely satisfying release from one of the music industry's most relevant artists and easily worth every penny. Let's see how this stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the only visual setback of this release is the lack of anamorphic enhancement. Other than that, this DVD looks about as good as its source material will allow: there's tons of hand-held concert shots and Super 8 home video footage, so only the newer interviews are anything to write home about. Still, it's a fine presentation and well within the bounds of the documentary genre---fans should simply consider themselves lucky to be seeing such rare material. Colors and image detail are generally fine and there are no major digital imperfections to be found, especially since the film gets the first disc all to itself.
The audio shares the same fate, though background music taken from the band's studio catalogue takes it up a notch. Presented in 2.0 Surround, the loud distortion of the band's earlier shows and the clear dialogue of the modern interviews are treated equally; in short, there aren't many complaints here. Although the Lips are frequently known for their bizarre audio mixes and studio experimentation, the straightforward presentation of in Fearless Freaks isn't a problem at all. Unfortunately, no subtitles were provided for the main feature or bonus material.
Menu Design, Packaging & Presentation:
The technical highlights of this release really begin with nicely designed menus, styled after several of the band's 90's-era albums like Clouds Taste Metallic. These brightly-colored animated menus are simple enough to navigate, but they're hypnotic enough to get lost in. The 99-minute film has been divided into 27 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging artwork follows roughly the same design scheme as the menus, with an attractive look and a nice film description written by Beesley. This 2-disc release is housed in a single-width black keepcase, and no insert was included (though the final packaging could include one).
There's a nice batch of extra goodies here, starting off with an Audio Commentary with director Bradley Beesley and bandmates Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steven Drozd (and the band's manager, Scott Booker). If you thought the documentary went into fine detail, the five participants do a great job of adding yet another layer of information to the band's detailed history. It's also worth noting that Kliph Scurlock also joins in briefly near the end of the track: he was a roadie for the group since 1999, and eventually became the band's live drummer from 2002 onward. Overall, it's a great listen that long-time fans of the Lips will really enjoy, as the wealth of interesting stories makes this commentary an essential addition to the release.
The rest of the goodies are on Disc 2, starting off with a selection of Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (roughly 30 minutes total), including great bits about Wayne's childhood, a slightly more complete performance with The White Stripes on Austin City Limits, an alternate retelling of the Long John Silvers robbery and even a taste of the Clouds Taste Metallic sessions. Next up are a series of Live Clips (15 minutes), including "Rainin' Babies" (1995), "Mountain Side" (1993), "Let Me Be It" (1990), "Take Meta Mars" (1991) and "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning" (1988). Lastly, there's a Photo Gallery presented in slideshow format (20 minutes); this lengthy series of personal photos is strangely unaccompanied by music or commentary, but maybe the Lips are hoping we'll provide our own soundtrack. Overall, a fantastic mix of extras that could only have been improved with more deleted footage; word has it that Beesley narrowed the finished product down from several hundred hours' worth of material, and more would've been icing on the cake.
One of the year's best documentaries thus far, The Fearless Freaks is a film that no Flaming Lips fan should be without. It's bound to be the most appealing to those who've followed the band from at least the 1990s onward, but those who started off with The Soft Bulletin or even Yoshimi will find this collection of footage to be of much interest. From the group's first steps to their current burst of studio-grounded energy in recent years, The Fearless Freaks really shows how a band can grow from something good into something truly great. Shout Factory has done an excellent job with this 2-disc DVD release---though it's a shame they didn't opt for anamorphic enhancement, the technical presentation is still good and the bonus materials suit the film extremely well. Overall, it's a fine effort that deserves a spot in any music fan's library. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a nigh-fearless art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.