Eight lessons offered by The Fearless Freaks, a documentary on the Flaming Lips
1. For a world-famous band, respected and requested by everyone from Beck to Justin Timberlake, the Flaming Lips are a group of humble, down-to-earth guys.
Much of Bradley Beesley’s film (edited from 400 hours of tape, shot over the course of 15 years) inspects the family histories of the band members—especially Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd—through home movies and extensive interviews. For Coyne, there’s a resonant emphasis on parental support, sibling stimulus, and neighborhood identity. He still lives frugally in the Lips’ hometown of Oklahoma City, maintaining it in the “ghetto-esque” area, as he calls it. Drozd’s background comes off as something more tragic, with three suicides in his immediate family and an older brother locked up for some time on a murky charge. Michael Ivins is the stoic, sociable guy with a history of incredibly dated hairdos, coiffure sculptures that shocked and awed long before he decided to go it bald. The Lips, then, are extremely ordinary people making extraordinary music. They put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us, but after they do, they make visionary pop music.
2. The Flaming Lips stole their act from the Butthole Surfers.
”[The Lips] stole our song, they imitate us, and Wayne wishes he was me,” the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes brusquely states in the film, adding: “Boy, he’s fucked if he’s gonna be me”. Coyne, exceedingly wise and impervious to confrontation, doesn’t argue. “We’ve never denied that,” he agrees on the film’s commentary track. Still, as The Fearless Freaks demonstrates, the Butthole Surfers’ ideas ended where the Lips’ universe began. Maybe Haynes is bitter that he never realized his own Zaireeka or The Soft Bulletin; Coyne’s demeanor may be nonchalant because he appreciates this.
3. Steven Drozd’s musical talent is criminal.
When asked to name Coyne’s biggest asset, Haynes immediately retorts, “Steven!” He’s got a point. On the drums, at the keyboard, wielding a guitar, adding harmony vocals: if Drozd was the Lips’ secret weapon, The Fearless Freaks lets that secret out of the bag.
4. Sometimes the stuff you really want to see is left on the editing room floor.
The Lips’ sound and vision took a indefinite detour to more cinematic pastures after the departure of otherworldly guitarist Ronald Jones in 1996. Beesley’s film painstakingly documents the band’s pre-Zaireeka history, offering generous live clips, tour memories, and even some great studio footage of the recording of Clouds Taste Metallic (1995). (Disc two’s only worthwhile feature is an extended edit of these sessions.) “The Parking Lot Experiment” and “The Boombox Experiment”, the Lips’ ingenious audience participation symphonies that led up to the four-disc Zaireeka, are documented in full: the megaphone-toting Coyne and Drozd, surrounded by a legion of cars with meticulously orchestrated stereos, rocket their arms ecstatically into the air to coax the skewed and rapturous results. But the Lips’ masterpiece The Soft Bulletin and its excellent follow-up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are barely touched upon. While various interviewees briefly comment on the former’s importance and significance, this creatively fertile period in the band’s evolution is skirted around. Either scenes from or insight into the creation of those records would have proven infinitely intriguing; instead, this missed opportunity fashions a tattered tapestry out of the film’s chronology.
5. Death informs life.
In one of The Fearless Freaks’ oddest scenes, Coyne revisits the site of the Long John Silver’s restaurant where he worked intermittently for 11 years—now a Vietnamese restaurant—and enlists some children to help him reenact a robbery that took place during one of his shifts. “I thought, ‘My God, this is really how you die’,” he remarks afterwards, almost philosophically. “One minute you’re cooking up someone’s order of French fries and the next minute you’re laying on the floor and they blow your brains out…there’s no music or significance.” Perhaps, then, it’s the Lips’ job to construct music and significance as an interactive soundtrack to our lives, lives persuaded and perturbed by death. The film’s brief footage of the band’s recent live performances shows a circus of life-affirming pomp—animal costumes, balloons, confetti, lights, mirror balls—that champions the mortal preoccupations of songs like “Do You Realize??” and “The Gash”. Speaking of his father’s sudden death, Coyne notes there’s “not a whole lot of philosophical clouds you can puff up around it”. He leaves the fabricated clouds to the music.
6. Minds need not be altered to create psychedelic music. But sometimes they are.
As Coyne proves in scene after scene, he’s probably one of the few bizzaro frontmen of wildly eccentric bands not on any kind of drug. Coyne’s weirdness is simply reality to him; taken out of the greater context of his band, he appears infinitely amiable, effervescent, and just plain normal. The Fearless Freaks sees in Coyne a tireless worker, single-handedly constructing sets for his still-in-progress feature film Christmas on Mars (like an Ed Wood-helmed 2001) and lending a hand to stage setups for live shows. “I don’t do drugs at all,” he says early in the film, “But there are advantages to taking risks”. Let us not confuse risk-taking for drug-taking, he insinuates, and Beesley’s film records Coyne’s risks of art and image: the assertion that Zaireeka should be ten discs, not four; leading hundreds of Austin strangers through a “spontaneous sonic orchestra” with childish trepidation; crowd-surfing encased in a giant plastic bubble; going to great lengths to scare the neighborhood kids at Halloween. It’s all done to satisfy his deep-seated curiosity of what could be, not what could be dreamed up in a drug trip.
Drozd’s story is different. We learn deep into the second half of the film that he has been maintaining a heroin habit for five years, one that has demanded all of his money and attention. The scene is blunt and exasperating, shot in black and white: while preparing a needle, Drozd speaks cogently of his addiction and his friends’ concern; after hunting for elusive veins, he shoots up and stands in front of the camera as the high takes hold of his body. There’s a bloodstain on his shirt. Drozd’s addiction (from which he’s since removed himself, literally, relocating from Oklahoma to New York state), sustained during the height of the Lips’ creative period, challenges Coyne’s sober route to discovering and exploiting creativity. But it also serves as an example of how the band comes together like a family to save one of its own from becoming a predictable, clichéd casualty.
7. To remove bloodstains from a white suit, soak the suit in cold water for a few hours.
“That really is my main job,” Coyne offers, carrying his blood-soaked suit to the bathroom, “Keeping my bloody suits reasonably clean for the next day.” The blood is fake, but Coyne’s intentions are real: he cites famous photographs of a bloodied Miles Davis, after sustaining an unprovoked attack of police nightsticks in 1959, as striking and influential images. Coyne’s onstage theatrics—singing “The Spark That Bled” with fake blood running down his forehead—aren’t empty gestures akin to KISS’ B-movie poses. They’re about contaminating contexts, decorating pristine pop music with ghastly ornamentations. The Lips’ targeted scope is beyond ambitious; it’s a party of philosophical and existential proportions. Still, a party’s a party. Coyne gets his hands dirty and cleans up the mess.
8. Just because a film can provide an intimate portrait of the men behind the music, that doesn’t mean it can’t fail to meet our expectations.
Fans of the Lips will undoubtedly find much to love in The Fearless Freaks, but there are some final glaring omissions and oversights that must be addressed. The second disc in this two-disc set is, for all intents and purposes, worthless. It’s literally devoid of essential material (the only exception being the extended footage of the Clouds Taste Metallic recording sessions mentioned earlier). Instead of including live clips of the Lips’ intricate stage shows of the present, the film offers five clips of performances from 1995 and earlier, each shot from a single angle (sometimes from the side of the stage) on a single video camera. (Thus, both the audio and video quality are downright bogus.) The band’s appearance on Austin City Limits is documented (minus the actual performance—huh?) and we get to watch Coyne appear as Santa (complete with fog machine and flashlight show) at a family holiday party. Not exactly riveting stuff. The real head-scratcher here is the absence of music videos, which seem to be a no-brainer bonus addition, especially since Beesley himself directed all of the band’s music videos since 1992. Ultimately, there’s just as much missing from The Fearless Freaks as there is offered.