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.

The Past Is a Grotesque Animal: A Film About Of Montreal

Director: Jason Miller
Cast: Kevin Barnes, David Barnes
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Rated: NR
US DVD release date: 2014-08-12

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.







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.