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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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They were the best of friends, they were the worst of friends, to paraphrase Dickens on Dig! a documentary tale of twin bands.

Director Ondi Timoner asks how success affects the average musician – and the not-so-average ones — and how quickly success can inspire self-sabotage on the DVD release of Dig!. This rock documentary about the contrasting styles and strategies of two bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, chronicles seven years of friendship and feuding between the groups – and the effects of luck and levelheadedness on their fates.

Anger Management

Taylor (The Dandy Warhols) and Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) go for a drive
Taylor (The Dandy Warhols) and Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) go for a drive

When Kurt Cobain ended the grunge era with a bang in 1994, BJM and the Dandys were heralded in the subsequent vacuum as a return to 1960s American psychedelic pop. BJM had a stripped-down folk- and blues-based style, while the Dandys had a hook-laden, electric shoegazer bent.

After their initial bedazzlement by Newcombe and the other members of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Dandys become fast friends with BJM in an urban tribe. “We’re going to kick off a full-scale musical revolution. We’re going to take over the world,” giddily brags BJM’s intense frontman, Anton Newcombe. Large amounts of drugs, including pot, cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin, and a love-hate relationship between the two bands’ leaders fuel both groups’ creativity. BJM releases three LPs in the space of a year and tours Japan; meanwhile, a cell-phone ad catapults the Dandys into icon status in Europe.

Some handle the success and the corresponding drug use better than others. Heroin induces paranoia in Newcombe and “makes him evil,” according to Newcombe’s ex-girlfriend Sophie, who leaves him for good. (Instead of disappearing from the film with no mention, however, Sophie is charmingly followed for several seconds in which she moves on to her next band, marries a band member, and moves to Tahiti.

The Perils of Not Selling Out

Newcombe is shown in concert footage “correcting” his fellow musicians by kicking or berating them onstage during performances. In early verbal sparring with a bandmate, Newcombe hints at the supreme arrogance that will ultimately alienate him: “I don’t do anything wrong. That’s why I don’t say I’m sorry.”

“He is his own worst enemy, because he thinks success and credibility are mutually exclusive,” says one friend to describe the conflicts that have arisen for Newcombe as his friends and rivals the Dandys have become more popular and he blows or turns down big deals, insisting that he is “not for sale.”

Good Band, Bad Band

The Dandy Warhols’ frontman, Courtney Taylor, narrates Dig! When an angry man attacks the photographer and then the Brian Jonestown Massacre at an intimate (read: tiny) BJM show, we get Taylor’s typically laconic voiceover: “See, the audience had attacked the film crew, for filming the band, and then, jumped the band.” Taylor speaks candidly about Newcombe, his friend, muse, and sometimes enemy. The fact that The Dandys’ frontman narrates the film makes The Dandy Warhols sometimes seem like the good band in contrast with the bad guys, or the one extremely talented bad guy, of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

“We are the most well-adjusted band in America,” declares Courtney Taylor, contrasting his own group with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, “and they are probably the worst.” “They’re going to end up in prison or something,” says another Dandy.

Bourgeois Like You

Luck and choice both influence the bands’ fortunes. BJM gets repeatedly told they are the next big thing, as do the Dandy Warhols. But whenever the Dandys’ success starts to eclipse that of the BJM, Newcombe gets jealous. He retaliates by writing songs dissing his friends’ band. On the brink of every possible breakthrough, BJM implodes at critical moments. People come to their shows not just for the music but for the potential sideshows – and often get them. In contrast, when a European TV commercial featuring “Bohemian Like You” propels the song to the top of the charts, the scenes showing members of The Dandy Warhols as they consider their change of fortune capture their innocent amazement.

Over time, the Dandys keep growing in popularity and can afford to buy cars and houses. Their career takes off in Europe. Meanwhile, Newcombe blows more opportunities with his violent outbursts and moves the band to the Dandys’ stomping ground, Portland, Oregon. It is a telling moment in their shifting relationship: Newcombe expects the Dandys to let him and his band crash on their couches, but the Dandys refuse to take him in.

Digging Their Own Holes

Dig! gives us a front-row view on what can happen when someone throws lots of money at people for doing the same thing they had been doing yesterday. The corruption that can stem from the new power to divide up the spoils seems to flourish immediately. Even the easygoing Taylor eventually falls under its spell. “I do everything,” he brags, “and I yet I’m giving away half of my songwriting money – half of it – so that the band can pay rent and have fun…. And that’s not enough? Are you fucking stupid?”

DVD Extras

Some of the DVD’s extra features allow band members to tell their own sides of the story, having seen the finished film. In one interview, Taylor laughs off his earlier “I do everything” statement. But other band members seize the opportunity to set the record straight about Taylor’s claims. “I write my own bass lines,” says McCabe flatly to the camera. In another bonus interview, members of the admittedly comfortable Dandys laugh not only at Taylor’s arrogance but also because they never saw that half of “his” songwriting money. It comes as a surprise to several of the musicians that Dig! focuses so sharply on Newcombe’s madness; many of the musicians express their relief at the exclusion of scenes that could have made them look worse.

More than two hours of bonus material is included on the second of two discs, including concert footage, music videos, additional interviews, and a “behind the scenes of the commentary track recording” feature. Bone up on your turn-of-the-century rock knowledge with the helpful “Where Are They Now?” interviews, in which former band members describe their current projects.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Timoner directed and brought her brother David Timoner on as a co-producer, filming over seven years. Bands and filmmakers alike became a kind of extended family. Over the course of the film, shots get steadier and colors seem truer as relationships between the people in front of and behind the cameras deepen and shift. Dig! reveals the evolution of not only the bands’ members but also the maturing of the filmmaker herself. “We grew up together,” the filmmaker says, nursing the baby she carried while editing in the heat of summer to enter the film in time for the Sundance deadline. (And she’s glad she did: Dig! won the festival’s prestigious Jury Prize in 2004.)

Living The Magnified Life

Dig! arrives at a moment of peak popularity for documentary films, with Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me filling movie theaters over the past year and Tarnation proving that with great editing anyone can elevate home movies to high art. And like recent pop star self-destruction chronicles Overnight and Some Kind of Monster (about Metallica), Timoner’s film shows fame’s explosive effects on individuals and groups. Which made me wonder, after I had finished watching Newcombe’s delusional crusade to become a star: Exactly how much pressure would seven years of being the subject of a documentary exert on a monomaniacal performer? And how much has this kind of pressure affected this particular performer? If he had not been in front of the lens, would Newcombe have felt less God-like? Would he have been less likely to hit or kick bandmates or audience members – or was he on his best behavior on camera?

Living the examined life can inspire some to live their lives with care and intention. Being the subject of a film, however, may not have been as therapeutic for Newcombe as it may have been for some of his fellow musicians – and for some of us in Dig!’s audience.