Though more and more it seems like the superficial trumps talent, one has to acknowledge that skill and artistry go a long way toward helping someone achieve their artistic dreams. If you can't paint, you can't be Picasso. If you can't write, you won't be Thomas Pynchon. Dancers need the grace of Fred Astaire and the physicality of Gene Kelly (or Twyla Tharp) or they might as well be grinding on the pole, and unless you're rip-roaringly hilarious, or capable of easily masking a lack of same, standup comedy just isn't your thing. Music, on the other hand, has never been plagued by a need for ability. Don't believe it? Here's one word for you - Ke$ha. While there have always been manufactured teen idols and corporate controlled pop/rock/soul/rap, the new millennium has seen technological advances turn even the most unlikely of caterwauling candidates into American (and world) idols. Can't sing? Auto-tune. Can't play? Hire sessions musicians. Can't craft a decent melody? Hire a slew of writers to build up your Billboard position and your I Heart Radio bottom line.
It is into this world of weird processed dos and donts that German documentarian Andreas Steinkogler enters to take on what Pink Floyd and others have often referred to as "The Machine." Indeed, his film even borrows the title from that Wish You Were Here track, though by doing so it competes with a few other features with a similar name. Heck, Floyd even has one. Still, what Welcome to the Machine hopes to achieve is a kind of perfected primer on how to make it in the cutthroat music biz. It offers up the "12 Commandments" of maneuvering this den of gypsies, tramps, and thieves while offering up some firsthand advice and anecdotal proof from the likes of Glenn Hughes and Cypress Hill, all in the service of following a new band (calling themselves 'The New Vitamin,' with all short vowels) as they try to break in...or out...or whatever. The result is a compelling if often scattered overview of how hard it is to become a major music star. Even those who've already attained said status seem convinced that, sans a miracle, only a fool would rush into such a shitstorm.
The New Vitamin don't help matters much. They're dour and seemingly undisciplined, convinced of their brilliance with little to back it up. Granted, no band is fully formed right out of the box (ask The Beatles circa Hamburg, or working with Tony Sheridan) and they may require the payment of significant dues before they get what they believe is coming to them, but for the most part, Steinkogler could have put anyone in their place and come up with something as unlikely - and unlikeable. On the plus side, this director gets a lot of quality interviews, including sit-downs with Fatboy Slim, Lydia Lunch (Yeah!), Kim Wilde (double Yeah!), and Megadeth, just to name a few. All have fascinating insights into how they "became" names, including the tireless hours, the horrible conditions, and the constant threat of forces outside (read: managers and record company executives) who will undermine your potential ride down easy street the first chance they get. Frankly, there should have been more of this in Welcome to the Machine. It's the main point Pink Floyd was rallying against.
Still, don't sell Welcome to the Machine short. It may have its flaws, but as clear labors of love go, this one attempts to service its defined purpose. One is unsure of how much a new group, unfamiliar with the ins and outs of our new digital download iTunes world and just eager to get people to hear them, will learn from this lengthy dissertation and the discussions with those on the very fringes themselves could act as a caution against even making the effort to try. On the other hand, Steinkogler believes in the points he is making and finds enough mutual agreement among the various artists and industry types to sell us as well. But let's get one thing straight, Welcome to the Machine should come with a warning sticker ala the FDA, making sure that potential superstars understand that there really are no guarantees when it comes to the fickle finger of fate known as making it big in music. Usually, talent trumps such unimportant concepts as Image and Exposure, but in the case of ascending the charts, the mechanism of the Machine remain geared toward the superficial, not the substantive.