[11 November 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
When the Smashing Pumpkins disbanded in 2000, they were very much going out on a high note: Billy Corgan and co., despite less-than-stellar sales for its criminally underrated final album Machina, managed to keep it together for one final show at Chicago’s famed Metro, the group quietly releasing a free album online (the aptly-named Machina II), recording a last-minute single for the fans (the gorgeous guitar pop of “Untitled”), and—truly—ending their reign as alt-rock gods with dignity and grace. Even in the post-Pumpkins aftermath, Corgan managed to form an optimistic new band named Zwan, which—though imploding after less than two years—managed to churn out one very good album of upbeat three-pronged guitar rock (2003’s Mary, Star of the Sea).
Then, of course, came the release of Corgan’s critically-reviled solo album TheFutureEmbrace. Then came the full-length newspaper ad Corgan bought declaring his intentions to reunite the Pumpkins. Then came the revelation that though the Pumpkins were reforming, only two of its original members (Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain) were returning.
This is where If All Goes Wrong picks up.
At first, Jack Gulick’s documentary on the Smashing Pumpkins appears to gloss over far too many details: it opens by saying the Pumpkins disbanded in 2000 and reformed in 2006, neglecting to mention Corgan’s failed projects, his blogged tirades against his bandmates (particularly former guitarist James Iha), and other critical details. Yet as the film rolls on, context gradually emerges, the energy picks up, and soon we are in fact getting a multi-faceted look at Billy Corgan the Songwriter, Billy Corgan the Band Leader, and—of course—Billy Corgan the Megalomaniac.
When reforming in 2006, many people wondered if, in fact, the original lineup of the Pumpkins was going to be intact. When the band debuted live during a residency at a small club called The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, only Corgan and Chamberlain were the familiar faces. Corgan went out of his way to bring in complete unknowns to fill in the band’s vacancies: Jeff Shroeder fills in on guitar, Ginger Reyes tackles bass duties, and Lisa Harrington brings piano/keyboards into the mix. All of the newcomers display a sweet naiveness during their interviews, often stunned that random auditions and calls out of nowhere have lead them to touring with one of the biggest alternative-rock giants of the ‘90s. Often, however, Corgan emphasizes the fact that this, inherently, is a new band, and—as such—they are enabling the Pumpkins to move in new directions.
Yet Gulick’s documentary makes one thing very clear: this is still Corgan’s band, plain and simple. During each residency (first at the Orange Peel and then later at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco), Corgan becomes so inspired by his surroundings that he begins writing Dylan-esque folk songs at an almost Pollard-esque pace, with song titles ranging from “Peace & Love” to “?”, sometimes textured with Corgan donning a neck-harmonic and truly inviting any/all Dylan comparisons (good or bad) he has coming to him. Corgan is unafraid to spend whole portions of the band’s live sets to these new acoustic stylings, intriguing loyalists while deliberately alienating those looking for a short nostalgic fix. Gulick’s camera takes to concert attendees at points, asking for their thoughts on the new songs. What’s surprising is how utterly indifferent fans are to the new material, some giving Corgan a pass for trying something new while others wistfully acknowledging that the new material has yet to be properly fleshed out.
It is here that the documentary begins gaining traction: by showing the reactionary side to Corgan’s grand gestures, we get a far richer, multi-faceted viewing experience. Case-in-point: the first night of the band’s Fillmore residency features a set list that is far from crowd-pleasing, ending with the 30+ minute meandering prog jam “Gossamer”. During the performance of that half-hour monstrosity, the camera cuts to shots of fans leaving during the song, obviously realizing that this is not the Smashing Pumpkins that they fell in love with during the ‘90s.
The documentary then goes to show a major newspaper giving a scathing review of the show the next day. Corgan is fully aware that his choices are unpopular, yet he’s unafraid to trudge on in the face of staunch criticism. His personal assistant gets her own vignette detailing the sometimes love/hate relationship that she has with her employer, new guitarist Jeff has a meltdown onstage after Corgan argues with him about his amp setting, and—during perhaps the most honest moment of the entire film—Corgan becomes quite defensive when telling the documentary crew why he won’t play catalog classics “Soma” or “Mayonnaise”: because James Iha had a hand in writing them. So upset he gets in discussing his relationship with James, he actually throws his acoustic guitar on his hotel bed in an act of frustration, showing the wounds and ghosts that still haunt Corgan to this day. It may not show Corgan in the most favorable light, but it does show him in an honest one, making for a surprisingly humanizing viewing experience.
It’s a shame, then, that the documentary balances these honest moments with conversations with annoying, ego-stroking talking heads (often credited simply as “writers”), praising Billy’s daring for doing these residencies and writing these new songs, some even claiming that no band has ever done these kinds of things before, which, of course, is simply not true. Yet the biggest criticism safety net that the documentary casts is an interview with like-minded egotistical ringleader Pete Townshend. At times, the Who guitarist actually provides a great deal of insight, noting that Pumpkins’ songs helped define people during certain times in their lives, but, now, they don’t need those songs anymore—all they want is to indulge the nostalgia. Townshend stumbles, meanwhile, when he dismisses music critics altogether, his statement serving as a way for Corgan (and the documentary) to justify his sometimes antagonistic decisions, deliberately challenging his audience by indulging his every whim and fancy.
As Daniel E. Catullo’s companion documentary The Fillmore Residency proves, Corgan’s indulging himself quite a bit these days. Starting with a trio of new acoustic numbers (“The Rose March”, “Peace & Love”, “99 Floors”), it’s obvious that this is going to be far from a typical Pumpkins concert. Once the full band joins in, however, things begin to pick up—and get weird. Some old fan favorites (namely “Blue Skies Bring Tears” and “Heavy Metal Machine”) get completely refigured, as Corgan’s spacey, guitar solo-heavy treatments leave these songs virtually unrecognizable from their earlier incarnations. Even the new rock songs—“Superchrist” in particular—fail to make much of an impact. It’s a relief, then, that older tracks like “Lucky 13” and “Untitled” (the latter incorrectly listed as “previously unreleased” on the DVD packaging) manage to bring the rest of the show into sharp relief, as their big choruses, strong melodies, and unchanged renditions make for easy concert highlights.
Yet if The Fillmore Residency has one major flaw, it’s the most obvious flaw that any concert doc can have: it’s just too damn long. There are only so many times you can show shots of Corgan wildly soloing on his electric before boredom sets in, and by the time the band gets around to its second round of generic acoustic stylings, the itch to press the track-skip button simply becomes too great. It is here, however, that Corgan debuts the best of his “new” songs: the lovely, wounded “No Surrender”, which absolutely cries out for a proper studio rendition.
Any good momentum that is gained by this song, however, is immediately squashed by what follows: “Gossamer”—in its entirety. Though the song starts off promising enough (the first two movements in particular are particularly grabbing), absolutely no new ideas are introduced during this 30+ minute epic slog. Though it is thrilling to hear Corgan and Shroeder have their guitars duet in perfect unison, it’s a gesture that grows tiresome by the time the song reaches its 17th minute. Then, of course, comes the ending coda, which Corgan feels the urge to repeat it again and again, resulting a song that truly feels like it will never end. No, this is not the most crowd-pleasing of sets, but Corgan makes enjoying it a far more arduous a task than it needs to be.
Ultimately, If All Goes Wrong paints the portrait of a band in flux, which—despite having released a new album with new members and close to a dozen new songs to its credit—still feels like it’s in search of an identity. Corgan wants to move in a new musical direction, but by brandishing the Smashing Pumpkins moniker, he signals that the band’s musical history is alive and well in him, when—in fact—it’s not. It’s a strange place for a band to be in, but it makes for a fascinating (if somewhat frustrating) viewing experience.