Dig! (2004)

Jesse Hassenger

The film is less effective at conveying the genius of Anton Newcombe than the madness, possibly because the latter only requires a camera and Anton himself.


Director: Ondi Timoner
Cast: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor, Joel Gion, Matt Hollywood, Dave Deresinski, Peter Holmstrom, Zia McCabe
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sundance
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-10-01 (Limited release)
Amazon affiliate

Dig! has a strategic advantage over other rockumentaries, in that it follows the trajectories of two bands instead of obsessing over one. The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre were uneasy friends and uneasier rivals in the second half of the 1990s. They both boasted similarly skinny, pretty frontmen (Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe) and '60s-ish art-rock aesthetics; the Dandies found modest fame and success; BJM, as they're called in the film, did not.

Neither band would necessarily merit its own doc, but together they create an arresting portrait of working rock musicians. They are born of the same underground "scene" (although the film never quite explains what that scene might be). The Dandies sign to a major label quickly and must struggle through the corporate maze of overspending and under-promoting, over-hyping, and underselling. The BJM boys, meanwhile, struggle to get through a gig without an on-stage brawl.

This the-same-yet-different dynamic is the film's backbone. Despite implications that BJM is the vastly superior, more artistically adventurous, even mind-blowing band (the Dandies are slighted by omission), both come across as merely pretty good; the Dandies are catchier and the BJM more passionate, but neither seems "one for the ages." Dig! makes the rock-doc mistake of suggesting the BJM live show is awe-inspiring before we see or hear any of it; we're then treated to lo-fi, indistinct clips and spend the rest of the movie waiting for brilliance to materialize.

Perhaps this is an intentional irony, but the relentless praise of BJM suggests otherwise. Some of this is funny ("I've never seen them eat," marvels a member of the Dandy Warhols); much of it sounds like rock journalism at its hyperbolic worst: Taylor says that Newcombe is "always ahead" of everyone else musically, offering absolutely no specifics to convince the rest of us.

The film is less effective at conveying the genius of Anton Newcombe than the madness, possibly because the latter only requires a camera and Anton himself. Newcombe seems a sick parody of a rock frontman; he's one of the most singularly affected personalities I've ever seen in a rock-doc. His speaking voice has a childish quality that makes his every word sound facile-preening disguised as ironic preening. He only sounds sincere when he's singing. Courtney Taylor is more grounded, though the film shrewdly exposes his own, less flamboyant weaknesses. While doing the promotional rounds for their first major-label release, Taylor brings his band to the disheveled home of the BJM for a photo shoot, without warning Newcombe or anyone else. He exploits their squalor with cheerful condescension. The Dandy Warhols also shake their heads at Newcombe's heroin habit, while they partake of cocaine.

Director Ondi Timoner compiles a truly astounding range of footage. We see both bands bitching, clowning, getting arrested, arguing with their labels, arguing with girlfriends, arguing with each other, taking drugs, brawling; no re-enactments are necessary. The film omits interviews with Taylor, seven years after battling with Capitol Records in cushy, VH1-inspired hindsight, but includes his angry rants, in the moment, as he's getting screwed. A major theme of both stories is how the economic structure of the major-label music business is based around interference and failure. Taylor works his ass off to gain more exposure; Newcombe works his ass off to sabotage his own work. As a behind-the-music-scenes glimpse, Dig! is fascinating.

But as a portrait of these bands in particular, it feels incomplete. In a potential coup but actual miscalculation, Taylor actually narrates the film. This prevents Newcombe's eventual disdain for the Dandy Warhols (he considers them sell-outs) from taking over, from turning the film into a simplistic art-versus-commerce story. But it also muddies the film's point of view. Taylor is too aloof to illuminate the Dandies-Jonestown relationship beyond rudimentary "on-again, off-again."

If we take away anything from Dig!, it's that making a living as a rocker is a constant fight, either with the industry or, in Newcombe's tragic case, with yourself. But the film's subjects and makers are reluctant to raise a sad, very rock-and-roll point: it may be more fun to hear outlandish stories about the Brian Jonestown Massacre than to listen to their records.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.