Written by Sombra Blanca
If your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, like mine, can only be lived vicariously, the Justice documentary A Cross the Universe packs in a few years’ worth. Despite the fact the documentary’s subjects, Frenchmen Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, don’t play rock ‘n’ roll at all, at least not in the traditional sense.
Whether their brand of banging electronic house music is “the new rock ‘n’ roll,” as one fan proclaims, I’ll defer to others. But A Cross the Universe, a summary of their three-week North American tour in early 2008, reveals enough antics to rival the legends of any hesher hero.
At 64 minutes (shorter than the accompanying audio CD in the two-disc set), Filmmakers Romain Gavras and So-Me haven’t the time to delve into the duo’s history, why they make music, or any other biographical sketches. A little airport confusion, a stock shot of a plane in the air, and the film is off, fueled by the frenzied, over-the-top music from Justice’s first and only full album so far, Cross. (Not the word but the symbol, kind of like what Prince did).
Naturally a documentary about touring is going to include some live footage of the shows, and the directors include plenty of it, or at least a generous amount of fan footage. Crowd surfing in every clip, crazy costumes among the concertgoers, hands in the air as if they didn’t care, and an almost painful amount of strobe lights. Seriously. I understand the intent is to match the “thump-thump-thump” of the beat, but how their uninspired lighting tech avoided seizures, I have no idea. The lighting is the main reason it’s a good thing A Cross the Universe isn’t a straight live show.
If I had a gripe about the live footage, it would be that the close-up crowd shots dominated any clips of Augé and de Rosnay actually “playing” their instruments, even if it would horrify purists by showing a couple of CD players among other equipment. And especially because one of the gigs, the 2008 Coachella Festival, was purportedly their first performance with a live PA setup. It would’ve been nice to see trial-and-error (or success) footage from that show alone.
Instead, the directors never let the film linger too long in any one moment, and constantly flip back and forth between on- and off-stage. The duo, their tour manager Bouchon, and other members of the entourage find themselves in a hotel room filled with pantily clad ladies one night, watching a marriage on another night, and peppered along the with way with arrests, celebrities, and bottles both emptied and broken on purpose.
The chaos that follows Augé and de Rosnay is usually sorted out by Bouchon, who throughout the film aligns himself more with the American way of life with an increasing obsession with guns. He keeps one at his hip, takes others to firing ranges, and even argues with locals about gun rights. At the suggestion he carry a shoulder holster, for example, Bouchon without a hint of humor says “This is not a movie, man; this is the real life.”
The filmmakers also lucked out with the selection of Roger (no last name given) as the group’s bus driver. A baritone-voiced Christian who fills his cell phone with pictures and aims to break the Guiness record for the lowest musical note, Roger’s southern drawl brings a bit of calm to the Justice storm, both through interviews and the occasional narration.
If Augé and de Rosnay adhere to similar Christian beliefs or behavior, as the rumor goes, A Cross the Universe leaves the question murky at best. At worst, it would be seen by some god-fearin’ folk as an abomination. Whether the directors — also friends of Justice — intentionally left drug use out of the final cut, or if it just didn’t happen, we don’t know. But there’s plenty of alcohol passed around and consumed most often (in the film, anyway) by Augé. He’s also the one caught on camera the most with the ladies, including a couple of tour bus rendezvous. Yes, they ritually kiss a cross before walking on stage, and yes, their stage design includes a cross tucked between (unplugged) sets of Marshall amps, but even though their music thumps, it doesn’t appear they’re thumping bibles.
While the documentary is frenetic, funny and at times just strange, the audio disc from San Francisco in the set is a bit of a disappointment. At first I wondered if the crowd was just “that loud” to be picked up so well through the soundboard. But it turns out the crowd really is that loud for one of two reasons, depending on who you ask: either the crowd noise was boosted in the final mix of the show, or the show was recorded with several microphones around the stage.
I subscribe to the former theory, because although the music gets muddy at times, it still bumps quite clear through most of the disc. Microphones, it seems, would’ve lowered the audio quality to the level of a cell phone YouTube clip. And the adage about “really being there” fits with the effect of hearing the crowd lose it every time Justice drops the beat and follows the group through every twist and turn, bleep, and blurp.
The nearly three minutes of only crowd noise that starts the disc probably could’ve been trimmed, but from there the duo slams through “Genesis” and “Phantom” before working through an altered four-minute version of their biggest hit so far, “D.A.N.C.E.” Augé and de Rosnay continue to pound out “Waters of Nazareth,” “Stress,” and a goosebump-inducing run through “We Are Your Friends” along with the other cuts from Cross, before finishing the encore with their take on a Metallica classic, “Master of Puppets” (there’s that rock again).
I love this music, and I’m happy to have it, especially until I have the chance to see Justice live myself. But by the end, even I found the need to turn it down just a little. The eardrum-challenging sound of the music itself, along with the crowd, approaches white noise instead of wonderful noise. Rather than bumping up the bass, I felt more like lowering the treble. Still, considering that on its own, Justice’s music has a raw, haphazard sort of feel to it. Maybe the mixing was a conscious decision to avoid a sound too polished. And with a crowd as enthusiastic as this one, they deserve some credit too, I suppose.
All in all, between the crazy antics of the documentary and the balls-out live show, A Cross the Universe is a safe bet if you haven’t thrust your devil horns up in a while.