I'll just come clean at the start: I've always had mixed feelings about LCD Soundsystem. The band's miasma of New Order riffs, Suicide drumbeats, and 1980s vocal eclecticism is appealing in short doses, but I often find the songs go on too long, working one idea to death, and outstaying their welcome.
With this in mind, it maybe shouldn't really be a surprise that I have similar misgivings about Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary about the band's last performance, a massive three-hour-plus event at Madison Square Garden in April 2011. James Murphy, the frontman and principal songwriter, had decided to end the group after three albums, to go out while he was still proud of all he had accomplished, and punctuate the whole affair with a big party at a legendary venue. It's a movie that is at times exhilarating, especially when the live footage takes over, and at other times perplexing and dull, maybe lingering too long on the moment in an effort to force a heavier meaning on the whole thing.
Shut Up and Play the Hits is directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, who previously directed the Blur documentary No Distance Left to Run. To provide context for the LCD show, they film Murphy in the days leading up to the concert and the day after, tracking the nervousness and minutia that consumes him in preparation of the massive event, and then letting the boredom sink in as he comes down from the high. All these timelines are chopped up and shuffled, the cinematic journal jumping between the different days, live tracks, and a sitdown interview with Murphy and writer Chuck Klosterman. The stuff about the business of shutting down a band ends up being pretty good; the long takes of Murphy staring pensively into space as he presumably contemplates what he has done--though he could just as easily be merely contemplating going back to bed--drag on and on and on and, at times, some of this wandering around even feels staged. You kind of wonder where the camera was, how they managed to be ahead of him while he walked his dog, or underneath him as he shaves his beard--all stuff you shouldn't be wondering while watching a documentary. As Klosterman accurately points out, James Murphy is a man who finds it impossible to not be self-conscious; yet, here he is ignoring the fact that he's being filmed.
These complaints are easy to forget once the music gets going. I never saw LCD Soundsystem live myself, but had I done so, it might have removed my doubts about their recorded output. (It's been known to happen; a transcendent TV on the Radio concert completely changed how I heard their records.) Lovelace and Southern stick to the title's maxim and mainly cull the hits from the sprawling performance--"Dance Yrslef Clean," "Losing My Edge," "North American Scum" (with guest backing vocals by members of the Arcade Fire), "All My Friends," "Us v Them," a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire," and more. Reggie Watts also makes a guest appearance, and there is a horn section and a men's vocal choir. The band is energetic and the camera swings from the stage to the audience to capture the experience of being there from both angles (and finding comedians Aziz Ansari and Donald Glover in the process). It's scintillating and intense, and the show culminates in an emotional finale of "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down."
Murphy's dialogue with Klosterman attempts to wrestle with the meaning of this ending. What is its cultural significance? How does it fit with the mythology of rock 'n' roll? Murphy even wrestles with whether or not it's a big mistake, or something he is doing for the right reasons. There are, of course, no definitive answers, because there is no distance. If I am reading it right, I believe the intention of Shut Up and Play the Hits is to get that assessment rolling, to create the document by which future rock journalists can argue the case. This may be some of what sucks the feeling of immediacy out of the effort, and it's the kind of thing that Murphy says he never wanted to do with the band, and maybe this whole thing would have been better served had there actually been more shutting up, and just let the music speak for itself.
Which it does on the bonus discs, but more on those in a second...
Oscilloscope has brought Shut Up and Play the Hits to DVD as a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. Resolution here is superb, with sharp lines and gorgeous color timing. The photography in the film is exquisite, capturing reality with an artistic eye, working with natural light to create a remarkable image of the band's offstage activities, and going full-title disco for the onstage activities. Both look awesome, with only some slight blocking in some of the darker concert scenes--though that appears to be just a problem of capturing the complicated set-ups, not with the DVD authoring.
Two sound options are offered, a 5.1 surround mix and a stereo mix, both in Dolby. The multi-channel choice is the way to go. The quiet scenes have excellent aural ambiance, while the concert goes big and goes loud. The use of front and back speakers means the music is all around you, and the crowd noise is mixed purposefully to make it sound like you're standing in the audience listening.
What I will say about the 2.0, though, is that it has a more direct impact. Literally. The centered mix means you can really feel the heavy drumbeats in your chest.
The usual multi-piece Oscilloscope packaging is very classy, with a foldable book coming inside a smartly designed slipcase. The multi-panel interior section has room for all three DVDs, as well as printed liner notes by Nick Sylvester, who led the men's choir at the MSG show.
DVD 1 has the movie alongside several on-disc extras:
* Around 20 minutes more of the conversation between James Murphy and Chuck Klosterman.
* A short look at the men's choir warming up.
* An even shorter reel of Murphy's manager, Keith Wood, swearing.
* "Catching Up with Keith," a 10-minute featurette showing Murphy going on a trip to see how that same manager is faring now that LCD Soundsystem is kaput.
* The theatrical trailer.
DVDs 2 and 3 have the full concert, a 3-and-a-half hour event, spread across both discs. All the songs are here, and in truth, this is the real selling point of the Shut Up and Play the Hits DVD release. This is essential material, and a must for any fans of good concert films. You really get to see the band do what they do, and experience the full breadth of their material, while also seeing how large an event this really was. The edit here largely matches the excerpts in Shut Up and Play the Hits, but without any interruptions or insertions. Sound options are also the same. Added backstage material fills in the breaks during the concert. Plus, the extra special Shit Robot cameo!
Highly Recommended. More for the two bonus discs of the concert than the documentary itself. Shut Up and Play the Hits is a decent music documentary, especially when it stops with the self-important pondering and cuts to the live footage of LCD Soundsystem rocking Madison Square Garden. The event the band put together for their last show is huge, as evinced by the full three-and-a-half-hour uncut version. The performance is remarkable, and the presentation is bright and loud. The backstage stuff in the main documentary ranges from interesting to completely boring, but such is life, I suppose. Shut Up and Play the Hits indeed.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.