Twenty Years, Too Fast: ‘The Past Is a Grotesque Animal: A Film About Of Montreal’

The Past Is a Grotesque Animal takes a compelling, 20-year long story, and zips far too quickly through it.

Of Montreal has been through all the same stuff as other bands. The band came together as a band only to find that its creative leader grows into his own and decides that the band is his band. The band teetered on the brink as said leader probes the depths of his (in)sanity and tries to see if he can come out sane and whole. The Past Is a Grotesque Animal depicts all of this, plus horses, shaving cream, and an international romance.

In an attempt to be different or to meet festival screening times or a deadline or for some other reason, the brisk pacing of The Past Is a Grotesque Animal almost renders it terse, more of a series of Snapchats than a kind of in-depth examination of one of the most creatively inexhaustible entities around. In short: It’s too short, given a two-decade career and albums that run a gamut wide enough that you often wonder aloud if it’s actually the same band from one record to the next, the precise reason why Of Montreal is so beloved.

Maybe this is the case because creative force Kevin Barnes’s reluctance to discuss some of that creativity in depth. Maybe it’s simply in the interest of getting on with the story. Ultimately, the story becomes the nagging point of the film, even as we watch a series of brilliant albums unfold and Barnes and band transform from a quirky little band from Athens, Georgia, to one of the major forces in independent music across the globe.

Of Montreal’s music isn’t just the stuff that dreams are made of; its stage shows put the spectacle into the rock ‘n’ roll experience. Sure, the Tubes and Alice Cooper gave us all that a long, long time ago but few if any have been able to do it as well ever since. Barnes and his menagerie of misfits do theatrical rock better than anyone else—better than Wayne Coyne’s Flaming Lips, a band that never lets you forget you’re being presented with spectacle and better than anyone who thinks that pyrotechnics and drum kits on rollercoaster tracks constitutes a great time.

The relationships within the band are part of the story as the members who central to Of Montreal at the start fall away and fall away until, at the end, it’s really down to Barnes and his brother David, the man responsible for much of the visual spectacle. You get the feeling that for everything being said — and there is much mutual respect and praise offered and some minor barbs — there’s a whole lot that isn’t. Naturally not every music documentary has to wind its way down to being nothing more than an excuse for trash talk but maybe a little more frankness would not have hurt.

In the end, Kevin Barnes seems the saddest of all who have passed through the ranks. He tells the camera that in the end he cares more about the art than the relationships. But given the context of the events of the film, these words come across more like the words of a man so afraid of being hurt that he cloaks himself in loneliness, rather than someone who would dismiss those closest to him just because of his artistic vision. You could sneer and jeer at him, but instead you just kind of feel sad that all that great music has come with a price so high.

Along the way we’re treated to Of Montreal’s artistic evolution, from a group that focused on the purely fantastical to one that has become more conceptual but, alternately, more confessional. That trajectory — and the music that accompanies it — is the best part of a film that, although not perfect, is still pretty damned good.

Extras on this DVD include deleted and extended scenes plus an early home video.

RATING 7 / 10