The history of rock & roll is littered with the bodies and careers of those who mistook cautionary tales of overdoses, bankruptcies, and career and personal self-sabotage for a lifestyle blueprint. As Ondi Timoner’s film festival darling Dig! demonstrates, Brian Jonestown Massacre mastermind and front man Anton Newcombe was one who misread the warnings. But the no-frills documentary also makes it clear that Newcombe is the real deal — both supremely gifted and organically nuts.
The film, which spans seven years, opens in 1996. Back then, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols were crawling out of their infancy into the open arms of a record industry and music press that were starving for a great white hope. The two bands quickly formed a mutual-admiration society, praising each other in the press and popping up at one another’s concerts to lend musical support. Timoner captures it all for posterity, but the most powerful emotional current in the film is not the “I love you, man” sentiment the bands volley back and forth — at least initially — but the unspoken whisper of “I want you dead” that eventually begins to trail all the gush. Dig! is fueled by the tense, combative relationship that develops between the bands as fortune smiles on one and toys with the other.
Timoner’s movie is as much a chronicle of the ways in which the music industry hamstrings careers and collapses upon itself as it is about the dazzling rise of one band and the spectacular implosion of another. There’s nothing new in Dig!’s revelations about the business end of the music business: Ninety percent of new bands fail. Formulaic crap gets signed while visionaries get fucked over. New artists and musical scenes are just more oil for the creaky
corporate machine. Et cetera. The film nimbly conveys all that, allowing us to see how ancient formulas playing out in familiar ways still manage to inflict fresh wounds.
Dig! reflects the DIY ethic of the two bands’ early years. It’s largely a point-and-shoot affair whose gloss-free, gritty look is perfect for jaunts through seedy apartments and seedier clubs, on-the-fly tour bus (and van) moments, and stopovers at makeshift recording studios.
(The only time that gloss is slopped on is in clips from a David La Chappelle–directed music video for the Dandys.) Narration provided by Dandy member Courtney Taylor gives the film a sardonic spritz.
The cool-eyed professionalism of the extremely talented Dandys propels them forward despite the hazards and even as they rail against moronic record-industry executives. (They’re actually not the sellouts that members of the BJM label them; they’re simply savvier about playing the game.) A sequence in the film depicting the shoot of the band’s first music video, directed by trendy fashion photographer La Chappelle, encapsulates the Dandy-on-the-rise experience — the indignities heaped upon the band by the label, and the whoring of image that the band do in order to meet the label halfway (epitomized by the video being shot, which they loathe). It also sets the stage for the Dandys’ arrogant patronizing of the Brian Jonestown Massacre once the former start
In contrast, Newcombe’s obsession with maintaining a pure musical vision — with not selling out — leads to spasm after spasm of self-destruction, not only thwarting his career but wreaking havoc on his bandmates. “He wants to be a rebel. He doesn’t want to conform,” says one talking head. “He also wants to be a success, but he can’t admit that to himself.” It’s the familiar bullshit bind, the notion that a choice must be made between authenticity and success, a notion that has choked more than one artist to death. Footage of the BJM brawling onstage, backstage and offstage as they drink, smoke and snort anything within arm’s reach, or of the solo Newcombe smashing a boot into the head of a heckler — this is the stuff that cool underground
legends (and careers that might have been)
are made of.
Timoner doesn’t intrude on the events being filmed or impose editorial comment on what the audience is watching, and there’s no need to. It’s all there, already. But you do get some sense of where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie by her choice to have Newcombe cap the film with the statement, “The fuckers, the bean counters, the lawyers, all these assholes at every label. Those are the people who wrecked the record business — not Napster, not some college kid downloading shit. The people without vision.” Therein lies the appeal of a man whose exploits can’t fully drive away even the most exasperated fan or observer — his unfettered clarity in the eye of whatever storm he brews.
DIG! | Written, directed and produced by ONDI TIMONER | Released by Palm Pictures | At the Nuart