SXSW Film Festival Day 6: ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’

I have a friend — let’s call him Zachary — who absolutely loves music. He loves music so much he’ll gesture wildly with his arms when the sound overwhelms him. He’ll pause mid-conversation to make sure you hear a line he finds particularly enthralling. He’ll even sing the line AND gesture simultaneously to drill the point home.

Needless to say, his list of favorite musicians is seemingly endless. Near the top, though, is the now defunct band LCD Soundsystem. I, too, enjoy the passionate lyrical reverbs of James Murphy’s awesome organization, but not nearly as much as Zachary. He would play the band’s albums over and over for days on end, fervently gyrating to the same songs as if he was hearing them for the first time.

His ardor was infectious, but I found out it’s not nearly as infectious as seeing Murphy and his mates perform live. Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary co-produced by Murphy, is a powerful piece primarily purposed to chronicle the band’s final show at Madison Square Garden. Though it does this, and quite successfully, directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern had an ulterior motive as well, one that may prove heartbreaking for both casual and devout fans alike.

Walking into the spacious, casually constructed Vimeo Theater inside the Austin Convention Center, I had no feelings whatsoever about Murphy’s band breaking up. I didn’t care if they stayed together, split apart, started anew, or decided to make Christian radio cover songs. I liked what I heard from them in the past, but never even bought an album.

I was there for one reason: to make Zachary jealous. How could I, a part-time listener, see the great LCD Soundsystem’s final concert properly documented and depicted in a fine theater with surround sound and amazing video before he, a fan devout enough to try to get tickets to the final concert playing almost 1,000 miles away? It wouldn’t appear fair in his mind, and really, it wasn’t.

Going in the way I did, with what little background I had on the band, probably saved me quite a bit of heartbreak. The aforementioned directors’ secondary motive seems to be highlighting doubt. Doubt regarding Murphy’s decision to break-up the band. Doubt about what the future holds for the intellectual front man. Doubt concerning what may be the biggest mistake of his life.

Framed around the group’s final performance as well as a magazine interview with Murphy, Shut Up and Play the Hits is a captivating look at both the band’s powerful live performance and its lead singer’s thought process. The film’s first half points out how self-aware Murphy is in his life and his music. The interviewer (I believe from Wired magazine) mentions a few songs specifically illustrating Murphy’s fears of being too old for the music scene, and it appears at first as though the documentary is out to confirm his decision to end the band’s successful run.

Then the interview and film shift gears. Questions arise over what Murphy will do with his newly available free time. He jokes about making coffee. Then he stumbles to come up with a real answer. He’s worried about jumping the shark, so to speak, but also wonders whether or not he has a responsibility to keep going if he can. It’s a mess of an answer that makes the final decision all the more difficult to swallow (how the other band members feel is a question that goes frustratingly unanswered).

As the performance draws to an end and hugs are being given and received, tears are shed, and gazes go on forever, the impact of the end becomes starkly real. The final song, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, is almost too fitting for both the band and film. The final image, though, is too much. It’s too morose. It’s too cloying, especially for a film that felt more like a monument to a deserving pioneer than a cheap ploy to keep fans hanging onto hope. You’ll know why when you see it, and it should come as no surprise it brought snickers from the half-full auditorium. This is a better film than one merely about mourning, and it deserved a more fitting finale.

Still, it’s well worth watching. The concert footage, which was shot by a handful of talented cameramen including the great Spike Jonze, is simply astounding. It’s not just clear, sharp, and nicely edited. The shots are dynamic and could have only been captured by an imaginative crew capable of getting complete coverage. They sent me out of the theater, and out of Austin, on a mellow high fitting the fantastic festival itself. Now I just have to make sure Zachary reads this.