Dig! is a tale of two bands that’s among the best music films I’ve seen. It resembles manic fictions like Boogie Nights and Nashville more than it does most documentaries. That’s a tribute to director Ondi Timoner’s excellent choice of subjects, storytelling panache, and brilliant editing.
Timoner and her crew followed two up-and-coming West Coast bands from their early struggles on. The divergent odysseys of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols through the music business of the late 1990s and beyond encapsulate and bring to life the troubles and dreams of wannabe rock stars and self-important artistes alike. This movie will entertain and interest viewers whether they are interested in the music or not.
Both The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre thought they were changing the world when they started out. Courtney Taylor, who narrates the film, and his loyal Dandys looked up to the volatile Anton Newcombe, BJM’s leader and “genius” songwriter, as an inspiration. BJM’s early shows, seen in clips, demonstrate the full power of the band’s retro-sixties sound when they were at their best. The film’s (and the Dandys’) worshipful view of Newcombe’s songwriting, however, is not fully warranted. Newcombe is a vastly inventive musician, but Taylor proved to be the more richly talented tunesmith, notwithstanding Newcombe’s darker sound, deeper lyrics, and sometimes abrasive seriousness of purpose. But it’s Newcombe’s eerily magnetic personality, lit by his broad-ranging musical talent, single-minded devotion to his art, and increasing paranoia and Messiah complex, all gruesomely fascinating, that centers this film.
Like a ’90s Jim Morrison, Newcombe exuded raw personal power. A child of schizophrenia and alcoholism, he inspired both love and hate, devotion and rejection, from bandmates, friends, girlfriends and potential business partners alike, one of whom points out that Newcombe “thinks success and credibility are mutually exclusive.” Newcombe’s view of the Dandys’ increasing success, as they play to audiences of tens of thousands in Europe, is that the more stable band has sold out, when really all they’ve done is followed where their music and hard work have led them.
Almost stealing the show from Newcombe in the film is his flamboyantly charming sidekick, the “tambourine man” Joel Gion. Gion mugs, addresses the camera, acts as front man on stage while Newcombe hangs morosely off to the side, and even represents the band at an important record label signing when the drugged-out Newcombe is in no condition to make a good impression. At almost every juncture Newcombe finds a way to sabotage his own success, antagonizing audiences and bandmates while disappointing record label execs.
While The Dandy Warhols struggle through their own record label woes to a position near the top of the modern-rock pantheon, Newcombe hits bottom. Even his stalwart band members like Gion can’t take it any more. But like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, Newcombe keeps coming back. Though a new generation of bands may admire his music, one would hesitate to place a bet on a breakout success for the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the twenty-first century. Still, in Newcombe’s mind, his “revolution” has occurred, and he may have a point.
The only negative thing I can say about this movie is that while it follows The Dandy Warhols’ career into 2002, it seems to leave Newcombe at an earlier time, and at a low ebb. The fact is, far from flaming out like Jim Morrison, he has apparently kicked the heroin habit and continues to make vital music. So bear in mind that one of the film’s primary subjects doesn’t think it treats him fairly.
That doesn’t affect its artistic quality. It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, and it wins my award for best music documentary of recent years. It’s not just interesting and sad, it’s darn funny. Rife with hearty bitching, slapstick violence and excessive partying, it rocks the viewer through a rattling amusement park ride of emotions. When Newcombe hits bottom, you feel a catharsis. When the Dandys hit it big in Europe, you feel joy for them. See it even if you don’t follow, or even like, indie rock.
Dig! opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, and in other cities later in October.