Being part of a rock band doesn't automatically gain you access to the sex and drugs debauchery that's usually associated with such a career choice. Certainly the hard driving music is there, but the non-stop parties featuring fetching groupies and infinite blow just don't come instantly to everyone - if at all. Indeed, fame and fortune, notoriety and name recognition value have to be in place before the ladies and the 'ludes pony up. Without a hit, or a scandalously hedonistic reputation based on a dynamic lead singer and his death wish, you're just a musician, trying to make it into an industry determined to keep you out. Some never get there. Others are tossed instantly into the fray. And then there are groups that actually earn a key to the doorway to success/excess the old fashioned way - they formulate it on their own.
Death Cab for Cutie are such a self-made accomplishment. Without radio airplay, major label support, or a video in heavy TRL rotation, this formidable foursome from the Pacific Northwest has forged a career that most one-hit blunders would envy, or even kill for. They've built a loyal and long lasting fanbase, a worldwide collection of devotees drawn to the band's earnest emotion and intricate instrumentation. From their first broken down van tour to the latest in luxury bus travels, these are artists who did it for themselves, a group that cemented its future on a sturdy foundation of respect and effort. Last year, they hit the road to satiate their following before making the leap into the possible corruption of the corporate mainstream. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully is the name of the documentary of said expedition, a film that proves that honest hard work is a reward greater than anything illicit or illegal.
In 2004, Death Cab for Cutie consisted of singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, guitarist/organist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGeer. They had released several CDs (including Something About Airplanes, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, The Photo Album and Transatlanticism) performed numerous live shows and slowly built up a loyal, almost illogical following. Then something even more shocking happened. The OC, that teen soap staple on Fox, fell in love with the group, making them a featured favorite of its hunky hero. Suddenly, the little band from Seattle was huge, a thematic core to a hit TV show. Unlike other artists for whom such recognition was a potential death knell (paging Paula Cole!), these amiable lads managed to build on the newfound mainstream cred and become poised for a major breakthrough.
As much a testament to their tenacity in a ruthless industry as a souvenir to a single tour, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully finds Indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie at said crossroads. It's a good place to be for the road weary Washington band. After seven years together, numerous crisscrosses through America (and elsewhere) and a growing catalog of interesting, introspective songs, the group is poised to capitalize on the prime time Q rating and sign a major label deal. As they prepare to once again board the bus and perform a series of club dates, their future is brighter than ever. And thanks to filmmaker Justin Mitchell, this seminal shift in the band's popularity, this move from obscurity to 'overnight sensation" is being captured for all posterity. Over the course of this fascinating film, we hear the following songs from the Death Cab for Cutie canon:
"The Sound of Settling" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"The New Year" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"We Laugh Indoors" - from the 2001 album The Photo Album
"Styrofoam Plates" - from the 2001 album The Photo Album
"Title and Registration" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"Company Calls" - from the 2000 album We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes
"Tiny Vessels" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"Transatlanticism" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"Expo '86" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"We Looked Like Giants" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
"Why You'd Want to Live Here" - from the 2001 album The Photo Album
"Prove My Hypothesis" - from the 2002 album You Can Play These Songs with Chords
"Bend to Squares" - from the 1999 album Something About Airplanes
Don't get the wrong impression of this film, however. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully doesn't want to be the latest Some Kind of Monster, or offer up a tell-all take on the tainted trappings of the music biz ala End of the Century. This is also not a straight concert film meant to showcase the band in their performance prime or make some manner of grander cinematic statement circa Stop Making Sense. Mitchell makes this very clear at the beginning of the film. Over shots of the band, he lets us know very specifically that this is not a Behind the Music movie, or a 'warts and all' grab for attention. Instead, this is the simple story of a diligent group of musicians who've been lucky enough, via hard work, perseverance and recognizable ability, to find a niche in the ever-shifting scene of popular music. Drive Well hopes to highlight the amazing grace of the band as a unit, as well as the centered and sane figures behind the noise. And this is exactly what Mitchell's movie does. It delivers four formidable talents trading on their love of rock and roll for an extended stay in the all too brief limelight.
Musically, Death Cab for Cutie can be a little off-putting, at least initially. Their song style is best described as evocatively ethereal, with guitars chiming through jangling signatures as underlying ambience forms from the resplendent rhythm section. Complex lyrics recall merry melancholy with lead singer Ben Gibbard's high-pitched vocals layering over the top like a long lost sigh. Together, Death Cab for Cutie creates a wholly unique sound, an enigmatic echo that resonates beyond the basics of simple three chord song structures. They dabble in pop, prog and punk. As a group, they are tighter than a hooker's hotpants. The music they make has the ability to seem both improvised and precise at the same time, a mix of the archaic and the atmospheric that transcends both trappings. Still, with the exception of a couple of tracks ("The New Year", "Transatlanticism") there are very few instantly memorable tunes here. Fans of course will know every note, enraptured by the chance to see their heroes recreate their specialized sonics onstage. But individuals new to Death Cab will probably wonder why, of all the artists currently making their way across the pop culture landscape, superstardom seems poised at these boys' doorstep of din.
This minor misgiving aside, Drive Well still delivers. It shows us the reality of life in a rock band, the almost never seen side of professional musicians actually WORKING for a living. Death Cab for Cutie make no bones about their good fortune. Each member seems centered, selfless and completely dedicated to the betterment of his bandmates. They constantly confide in the camera that they are still in awe of each other as musicians, and spend inordinate amounts of time breaking down appearances to drag out the best bits from their shows. In some ways, they come across as a little obsessive/compulsive, micro-managing their muse down to particular notes played in very specific ways at precise intervals. But at other times, that rock rebel persona comes peeking out, and the group really dives into their dense wall of sound. Many of the songs here are mid-tempo meditations, intricate tone poems more interested in mood than the anthemic. Yet somehow, Death Cab for Cutie can make even the weepiest track sound epic. It's one of their true strengths.
Drive Well is also standing evidence of the effect the 90s "alternative" scene had on the current music business. Along with the Internet, file swapping and increased technological capabilities, bands like Death Cab can manage their own music without major label input. They own their own studio space, produce their own records, and up until this film, used outsider means to distribute them. They admit that the leap to Atlantic is a bid for financial security - and not just for themselves, but family and longtime associates as well. They also acknowledge that some people will see the shift and scream "sell-out", arguing against their ability to stay true to their art and serve the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Drive Well doesn't really get into this discussion. As with most of its material, it breezes over the deeper issues involved in rock and roll to make a very simple, very surface statement. And in a year that has seen its fair share of broad scoped dissertations on the burden of being an 'artist', this is both refreshing and sort of retro. It reminds us that, sometimes, all a band has to do is make music to get its point across.
Indeed, the concert footage is what truly sells Drive Well. Death Cab for Cutie are an amazing live act, and they move about the stage with passion and purpose. The direction by Mitchell is deft, always managing to capture the dramatic moment in a song or sound. It's fun to watch a band so in tune with each other, functioning as an organic whole, not a closed combination of barely gelling parts. Especially remarkable is Nick Harmer's bass work. If there is an unsung hero of Death Cab, it's this fierce fireplug with a very unfortunate hairdo (sorry Nick). His lines and fills are so forceful, anchoring the entire sonic shroud that the group creates. He literally keeps several songs from flying off into the ephemera. It's painful to think of what the band would be like without him. While Walla and McGeer more than validate their place in the line-up, it's Harmer who steals the stage show here. Along with Gibbard's signature singing, it's what makes Death Cab for Cutie exceptional.
Drive Well, Sleep Carefully (one imagines this is a wrongly heard send-off from a parent or loved one - the title is actually never explained) is an excellent documentary of an equally adept band. The music may not be immediately memorable or moving, but the sound definitely grows on you. As the crowds queue up, hoping to hear their newfound favorite act, Death Cab for Cutie does appear ready to enter the mainstream fray. They have built a solid foundation out of tireless effort, friendship and fortitude and just may outlast the critics who call their sound obscure or arcane. True, they may never rise to the level of a U2 (or in tribute to their home town, Nirvana), but they appear ready to make rock and roll their LIFELONG career. After all, they've done pretty well over the last seven years, and if something about the major label diversion disappoints them, the DIY spirit has proven its potency to them before. Death Cab for Cutie didn't just arrive with a key to the kingdom. They had to forge their own. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully illustrates their career carving skills marvelously.
Justin Mitchell made the wise decision to film Drive Well, Sleep Carefully on 16mm film, thereby avoiding the by now overly familiar feel of a genuine homemade digital movie. The choice makes the 1.33:1 full screen image that much more evocative. As stated before, the concert footage is captured flawlessly, with a great deal of creative compositions and effective framing. The material recorded outside the venues also has a loose, off-the-cuff feel that add to the authenticity. While many may wonder why the only Q&A occurs at what appears to be the final show of the tour (it's the only element that one senses was 'staged') this is a marvelous montage, a celebration of music and musicianship.
Surprisingly Plexfilm does not outfit this DVD with a 5.1 Surround Mix. The Dolby Digital Stereo offered is stunning, with lots of sonic intricacy in the live mix. Each instrument sounds incredible, and the performances are so perfect that you'd swear the band was "miming". But this is not the case. This is a concert captured "as is" and even without the channel challenging, the aural elements here really give you that 'at the venue' sensation.
The bonus features offered on this single disc presentation can best be described as mainly musical in nature. We get a 10 minute acoustic set from the Metreon in San Francisco, a segment showing the band rehearsing the song " Stability", a demo video made up of clips from the film for "Lightness" and footage of Ben wandering the streets of Spokane, looking for something to do. There are also five additional interview segments, where we learn the importance of the British comedy The Office to the band, and how drummer Jason McGeer warms up. None of this material is must-see, but fans will love these views Behind the Scenes. What would have been great is a commentary from Mitchell, the band or both. Hearing what they had to say about the final product would have been fun and insightful.
It's refreshing to see a band dedicated to pleasure first, their music second and the ever-elusive fame of stardom a distant third. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully does a brilliant job of deconstructing Death Cab for Cutie's simple motives. Instead of being subjected to ego fits, substance abuse fueled confessionals or a stifling sense of self-importance that no longer seems to fit alongside a band's pop culture placement, director Justin Mitchell merely shows some guys getting off on making a sensational sound together. No fame flameouts, no deluded ideal of one's overriding importance. Just good tunes played by some good guys. Perhaps sex and drugs are overrated. After all, both end up biting you in the as-pirations somewhere along the line, and fueling an entire tabloid track that your career should never really travel down. Being proficient at what you do, and damn happy to be doing it, is the true rock and roll lifestyle. And this describes Death Cab for Cutie to a "T". Don't be surprised if they break out and become a superstar act. They spent enough years laying the groundwork to make such an ascension seem like a given.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here