Dig! (2004)

2004-10-01 (Limited release)

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.