I was already familiar with both Death Cab for Cutie and Plexifilm before I watched Drive Well, Sleep Carefully. I owe the prior Death Cab knowledge to my fiancé, who included We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes in a “get to know you” exchange of partial CD collections when we first started dating. Plexifilm, the company that produced the movie, also produced two documentaries I own concerning Wilco and They Might Be Giants. Both of those docs focus on a storyline. Wilco’s story is the now-familiar tale of their split with Reprise Records, the shelving of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the firing of Jay Bennett, and their rebirth with Nonesuch. The TMBG doc is more concerned with the 22-year history of the band. In both films, live performances take a backseat to the unfolding drama. Interviews and spontaneous moments drive the narrative.
Drive Well, Sleep Carefully never pretends to be a documentary with a linear plot. During the opening credits, filmmaker Justin Mitchell flashes a series of sentences declaring what the movie is not about. Finally, the screen shows, “This is simply the story of a band on the road.” And that’s what it is. There are some brief moments that deal with the band’s history, and one interview near the end of the film has Ben Gibbard discussing the band’s signing with Atlantic Records. Instead of a plot, this film concerns indie rock life on the road in all of its glory and tedium.
Death Cab’s live shows don’t vary much from their recorded material. Instrumentation is faithfully recreated, and even the electronic sounds that pop up on Transatlanticism are handled by Ben Gibbard, a drumstick, and a synth pad stationed in front of his microphone. The only thing lacking is Gibbard’s voice. Achingly sweet and gentle on CDs, it’s noticeably quieter in the mix and not as strong live. This parallels a downfall of most live shows, but considering he still has to play guitar the whole night, it’s not terribly off-putting. Drummer Jason McGerr is subdued on stage, as are Gibbard and guitarist Chris Walla. They bob to the music, shifting weight between their feet. The most energetic performances come from bassist Nick Harmer. For a stocky guy with a receding hairline, he certainly rocks out and flails around. The one huge deviation from the CDs is the extended jam version of “We Looked Like Giants”. Death Cab prove that they truly are a pop band, not improvisation masters.
Each live performance is bookended by interviews with the band. Songs with long instrumental sections are sometimes pleasantly interrupted by explanations about the origin of the song or the song writing process. Not much of the information is revelatory. We learn that this is the longest tour the band has ever endured, and that they don’t miss the old days of driving themselves cross country in a van. We also learn (if we haven’t already figured it out from the wardrobe of cardigans, short sleeve shirts, and skinny ties) that they’re kind of nerdy. Harmer relates one story in which Gibbard ignores his praise of The Lord of the Rings series, only to invite the band over for a Woody Allen marathon.
The footage is rarely spectacular. If it weren’t for time-lapse shots proving that the vehicles are driving from city to city, one might assume that every song was filmed in the same venue. Despite culling footage from 10 different clubs, every place feels the same. The songs are filmed using two cameramen, one on either side of the stage, who focus almost entirely on the band. The few shots we do get of the audience make it seem like they’re watching a lecture on foreign trade policies, not a rock band. But some of the footage is exhilarating. Watching Gibbard sing his heartfelt lyrics with closed eyes, or seeing Walla mouth the words silently to “We Laugh Indoors” prove that this seven-year-old band still has some enthusiasm and passion for making music.
The extras are aptly named. A brief acoustic set shot in grainy black and white is pleasant and includes a funny Q and A session. Extra interviews and general goofing off are also nice inclusions. One thing that should have remained on the cutting room floor is a rehearsal of the song “Stability” (which later surfaced on Plans as “Stable Song”). It’s slow, out of tune, and over ten minutes long.
The goodness of this film relates directly to the viewers’ like or dislike of Death Cab for Cutie songs. Fans will definitely love hearing their heroes talk about the inspiration for lyrics and learning the origin of the band’s name, but newcomers will likely find the performances excessive and indistinguishable. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully is a pleasant concert film with pleasant interviews. It’s never amazing, but just like the band members themselves, it’s damn nice.