For Fans Only!

Submitted by Alex Smith on September 22, 2005 - 09:25

Directed by Ondi Timoner (UMVD DVD)

The premise is a relatively flimsy one at best – pit two rival rock ’n’ roll bands against each other and document their respective trajectories over a seven-year period. We’re not talking Zeppelin and Sabbath here, though. Ondi Timoner’s award-winning DIG! depicts the strikingly diverse paths and ambitions of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, two American alternative rock bands from the 1990s. Neither band is a particularly big draw or a household name (the Dandy Warhols did manage to trouble the pop charts once or twice, albeit to no lasting effect). Despite the bands’ borderline anonymity in the grand scheme of things, DIG! is assuredly more than just a fans-only feature. It’s a hugely compelling film and a striking glimpse into the world of struggling musicians.

Documenting both the predictable mishaps of shambolic rock excess and the slow, torturous malaise of scuttled promise, Timoner’s film boasts no-holds-barred access to both ensembles’ inner sanctums that is almost uncomfortably intimate. While there is many a moment seemingly ripped right from the pages of This is Spinal Tap, there are elements to this story that are far more tragic than comic. Beyond the rivalry angle, the heart of this film is the story of the BJM’s lead singer, Anton Newcombe, and his subsequent slow deterioration. A self-styled troubled genius in the Brian Wilson/Syd Barrett mold, Newcombe’s monomaniacal exploits become more farcical, deluded, and unsympathetic as the story unfolds, much to the undoing of his band. By contrast, the Dandy Warhols come across as ruthlessly professional, competent, and well-adjusted, despite their own clichéd shortcomings. Watching the utterly dysfunctional Brian Jonestown Massacre gradually succumb to their collective narcotic predilections, juvenile infighting, and their lead singer’s fraying sanity is to witness a study in failed potential.

Over a short course of hills and valleys, the two bands’ once friendly rivalry gradually descends into estrangement involving veiled threats of physical violence, palpable bitterness, and talk of restraining orders. The Dandy Warhols end up enjoying a sizable amount of success (largely thanks to song placement in a European cell phone advertisement) while the BJM falters and eventually fractures, leaving Anton to soldier on alone in semi-self-parody.

While the human element of DIG! is surprisingly engaging (given that spoiled rock star wannabes aren’t always the most likable characters), the film’s major flaw is that for all the rapturous praise for the uncompromising musical genius of Anton Newcombe, there is precious little music presented throughout that is especially convincing of same. An earthier contrast to the Dandy Warhols’ hook-laden pop, the droney psychedelic rock of the Brian Jonestown Massacre is featured in frustrating fits and starts in the film. The bonus features sprawled over a deluxe two-DVD special edition, however, strive to correct this. Alongside an exhaustive amount of extra footage, deleted scenes, and ephemeral commentary, each band is allotted some space to demonstrate their chops via polished videos (in the case of the Warhols) and gritty live footage (in the case of the BJM). While both bands arguably suffer from a pronounced retro fetish, the Brian Jonestown Massacre is clearly the more adventurous of the two outfits, cruelly underscoring the injustice of its still largely unrealized potential. Recent reports from sporadic Brian Jonestown Massacre performances suggest that Newcombe is still as undisciplined as he is depicted in this film. While their respective fates are uncertain at this point (both bands are still going today, although the BJM’s line-up is forever shifting), DIG! has brought both bands closer to the timelessness they both so aspire to. - Alex Smith

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Mr. Smith is a native New Yorker who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and daughter, works for Time Magazine, and writes for The New Yorker and other periodicals.