On its sublime 2007 album Drums and Guns, Duluth, Minnesota, band Low was able to flirt with making a political album that wasn’t overtly political by remaining lyrically ambiguous. While the album certainly sounded like an End of Days mission statement, it could have also worked as a stark work of personal anguish, a reading made all the more likely thanks to lead singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk’s 2005 nervous breakdown.
Unfortunately, Low’s new documentary You May Need a Murderer shares much of Drums and Guns’s message ambiguity. Is the film supposed to provide a portrait of Low, or serve as a vehicle for Sparhawk’s religious and political ramblings? Even director David Kleijwegt doesn’t know. The documentary, originally commissioned for The Netherlands’ VPRO television station, captures Sparhawk, and his wife Mimi Parker, the other core member of Low, in their natural environment hanging with their kids, going to church and driving cross-country on tour.
The film may be subtitled A Film About Low but make no mistake about it; this is Sparhawk’s picture. It is he who feels this film’s purpose is not to provide insight into what his band is really like, but rather this is his shot to speak up about what’s wrong with the good old US of A, and how God isn’t important as he should be.
Sparhawk spends a decent portion of the film talking about how the economy sucks, how George W. Bush, and how we’re all gonna die because of our lack or reliance on God. Throughout the film, Sparhawk comes off as just another guy stepping up on a crowded soapbox yelling about how the end is near. If the day ever comes when we’re getting our politics from a guy who sings in a band from Duluth, then we’ll really know the end is near.
Of course, all of this preaching gets in the way of the supposed purpose of the film (i.e., providing a portrait of the band). Topics like alcoholism, family life on the road, mental illness and how the Mormon faith informs Sparhawk’s music are given five-to-seven minute clips that dissipate before ever truly revealing their subject. But you won’t have to time to think about it that much; to diffuse your anger over the film being mostly inessential, Kleijwegt tosses in live performance shots and Low singing songs around their house. (Luckily, for people looking for the band’s music, you can watch American flags flutter in Duluth while the at-home musical performances play in the background, a nifty feature Kleijwegt calls At Home with Low).
The band’s formation and Sparhawk’s childhood (easily the most entertaining and endearing parts of the film) are especially left tragically untouched and undeveloped. Early on, Sparhawk talks about when he first discovered punk rock (in magazines, like many small town kids) and how important those small fragments of songs he heard while riding the school bus were to him. This would have made for an excellent examination re: how small town kids experience music on a different plane than people who see rock concerts every weekend (especially coupled with the scene in which Sparhawk sings Journey with great zest in his van on the way back from a show, a band quite opposite the punk he discovered as a child, but to a small town kid, they are the one and the same), but it is not to be.
Even the most interesting aspect of Low’s recent history (Sparhawk’s mental breakdown in 2005) is passed over as a minor inconvenience to the director. Sparhawk quickly deflects any concerns that he may be manic or schizophrenic; he claims that to anyone on the outside it would appear that way.
Parker’s description is more revealing; she describes him spending a weekend at a cabin with a friend from church when he decided that he wasn’t going to open up his eyes because he was convinced his friend was the anti-Christ. Sparhawk defends himself by saying he hasn’t seen anything to prove otherwise. How does this affect their marriage? The band’s productivity? Their family? Is Sparhawk really crazy, or is (was) it just stress? A live-performance replaces any serious examination.
You May Need a Murderer goes out in as much quiet discomfort as a Low album, and like a Low album, you’ll leave the whole experience perplexed at what it all means. What is Low really like? You’ll be no closer to the truth after watching You May Need a Murderer than you were before.
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