Dig! (2004)

I’m here to destroy this fucked-up system
— Anton Newcombe, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, in Dig!

Anton’s paranoia was really incredible, [as was] his bravado and sense of certainty.
— Ondi Timoner, Dig! filmmakers’ commentary track

[Anton]’s not pretending he’s crazy…he’s pretending it all means something, which is pretty cool.
— Courtney Taylor, of the Dandy in a deleted scene from Dig!

For a revolution to be truly revolutionary, it must upset and overturn the status quo; otherwise, by definition it’s nothing more than a civil war. Had the South won the American Civil War, the victory would have gone down in the history books as a revolution, regardless of its cultural and political ramifications. For rock ‘n’ rollers, revolution is a self-evident trait of the medium — after all, it was borne of revolution. Rock’s myopic focus on movements of monumental scope and swath (“We’re gonna change the world!”) often ignores the fact that mini-revolutions are regularly instigated, affecting a small group of listeners. To the artist hell-bent on changing the world, little victories are never enough; there’s always another person to reach, always another fire to start, always another convention to raze. “We’ve got a full-scale revolution going on,” Anton Newcombe boasts in Dig!, referring to his band’s (the Brian Jonestown Massacre) relationship with the Dandy Warhols.

“Unfortunately,” counters Dig! director Ondi Timoner in her commentary on the film’s new two-disc DVD set, “the Dandys didn’t know much about this ‘revolution’.” Not that the Dandys weren’t interested in revolution; having been recently signed to Capitol Records at the start of the film, they simply had no need for it. But as Timoner’s mesmeric film — exhaustively shot over seven years and culled from 2000 hours of footage — shows, Newcombe thrived on the perception of an underground revolution. The façade of a revolution (whether or not it was embraced by the band’s cult fan base or even the populace at large) gives meaning, perhaps artificially so, to Newcombe’s prolific writing and recording habits, his erratic behavior, and his band’s mythologized, martyred existence. As Dig! progresses through time, it becomes obvious that Newcombe is steering the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) based on the coordinates of this non-existent revolution, as if all the corporate infiltrations would bend and break to his will. He’s so smug and solipsistic about it all, but as the leader of this revolution, he believes such an attitude is deserved: “I don’t do anything wrong,” he barks at BJM member Matt Hollywood during an outdoors rehearsal, “That’s why I don’t say I’m sorry.”

Winner of the 2004 Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Dig! has quickly assimilated into the pantheon of rock docs, and rightly so. It follows the tumultuous relationship between the BJM and the Dandy Warhols, as the former descends into manic instability and the latter finds commercial success. The BJM is shown to be a brilliant-but-damned outfit incapable of a similar ascent, largely due to the self-sabotaging implodes of leader Newcombe. Arguably the film’s central character, Newcombe is a centripetal force of violent drama, reducing every moment of potential perfection into a fistfight: faces are bloodied, sitars are broken, and label attraction is squandered all because the supporting cast around him won’t oblige and help crash this flaming wreck of artistry.

Dig! is about a lot of things: art vs. commerce; self-righteousness; music and truth; and self-attrition, dramatically represented by Newcombe’s gnawing away at his own career, relationships, and mind. The theater of Newcombe’s self-destruction quickly takes prominence as Dig!‘s vehement centerpiece. Even as the Dandys ride a wave of success abroad, Newcombe’s always somewhere in the peripheral vision, contending that his genius — overlooked, misguided, misappropriated — is a thing not to be forsaken or forgotten. (An example is the scene in which Newcombe attempts to thwart the Dandys’ CMJ showcase, sporting a fur hat and roller skates, drunk on wine, handing out homemade copies of the BJM’s “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” single. Zia McCabe — the Dandys’ tambourine and keyboard player — looks on from inside as Newcombe peers around the corner, childlike and impish, engaging in a moment of mutual acknowledgement of where the other stands. This immediately after Newcombe declared himself to total strangers — whom, according to the Dandys’ commentary, he believed were Capitol executives — as Jesus Christ.)

The three commentaries available on the Dig! DVD — one by the BJM clan, minus Newcombe (Joel Gion, Matt Hollywood, Dean Taylor, Dave Deresinski, and Miranda Lee Richards), one by the Dandys (Courtney Taylor, Peter Holmstrom, Zia McCabe, and Brent Deboer), and one by the filmmakers (director Ondi Timoner, with co-producers/cinematographers/et al. David Timoner and Vasco Lucas Nunes) — engage in lots of armchair psychoanalysis of Newcombe, gradually creating a more flattering portrait than, perhaps, the film is capable of showing. The BJM’s commentary is the most fun and freewheeling, thanks in large part to the insightful and deliciously catty Gion (the film’s irreverent comic relief, its “Greek chorus” as Timoner calls him). The group begins by propagating the still-sore feelings of betrayal and identity-hijacking caused by the BJM-Dandys rift, lobbing insolent, funny jeers towards Taylor. (“How’d he get the narrating gig, anyway?” “I guess he put out.”) (“Does he still wear earrings? Nobody wears those anymore.”) They still seem, to some extent, to either idolize or fawningly respect Newcombe, who is called “a groovy dude” and “my brother”. They can all concede Newcombe’s flagrant flaws, but stress that his genius and motivation made the abusive headaches worth it.

“Anton is clearly his own man,” Taylor states at the start of the Dandys’ commentary, adding, “I wish he could stay that guy [at the film’s beginning]”. To the Dandys, Newcombe’s loosening grip on reality was a direct result of his inability to shake loose the pangs of jealousy they spawned. They view every opportunity as one of self-advancement, no matter what the stakes — in one scene, they hold court in the BJM’s post-party house for a photo shoot (a party they didn’t attend) and think nothing of the psychic consequences (the BJM’s Gion calls it “the first fuckin’ strike” for the so-called “feud”). But then, the Dandys’ commentary is almost exclusively about their shabby chic image, a self-idolatry that’s almost nauseatingly narcissistic; who wouldn’t want to be them? They also have a different interpretation of the moment (caught on a spy-cam) where Taylor plays Newcombe a mix of the Dandys’ “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”, positive that Newcombe’s blank stare is caused by his overwhelming awe. (The BJM has an opposite reaction, declaring that Newcombe obviously thought it was “complete and utter shit”).

“He’s an incredible, atomic presence on the planet,” Timoner says of Newcombe towards the end of her commentary. David Timoner adds: “We all wanted to show Anton’s genius, but genius is a hard thing to capture”. The latter quote refers to what all the commentaries deem as Dig!‘s most crucial scene: It’s New Year’s Eve, and while the Dandys and the BJM rock the night away at a celebratory show, Newcombe is holed up in a Portland, Oregon lock-out where he records an entire song alone. “It shows you how he puts together his music and that he’s not a madman all the time,” Gion explains. In fact, recording seems to be the one situation where Newcombe can channel all of his gale-force energy into something exceedingly positive and beautiful. (Though it’s worth re-emphasizing that in this scene, he is alone; it’s revolution as solitary confinement.) One of disc two’s extended scenes is a longer look of the week-long period in which the BJM recorded Give It Back (on an interested label’s speculative dollar). Newcombe is visually possessed by his muse, dictating the creative vision to others as it bottlenecks and spills from his head. He’s confidently provoked and humanized by the process, locked onto the task at hand.

But perhaps the closest we get to completely understanding Newcombe is a crucial additional scene on the second disc, not included in the final cut of the film. Atop a city rooftop, he explains his creativity and intentions to a reporter with a lucid and calm demeanor; here, he comes off as nothing less than pure and noble. “I’m a psychic earthworm that takes negative things, [puts] them through my body, and then they come out and people interpret them,” Newcombe states serenely, his tone one of self-confidence, not self-destruction. When asked why he writes so prolifically, he explains, “I am working very hard to open the clearest, universal, absolute channel of communication everywhere”. Maybe such a statement is one of lofty naivety and fantastic indulgence, but it resonates because it cuts through all the negative, violent disruptions Newcombe thought to be integral parts in staging his revolution. For Newcombe, this was his vision; righteous, indeed, even if its realization was lost in the upheaval.

As A&R man Adam Shore states in Dig!, the BJM’s music is “American heritage reinterpreted”. So what is that if not a revolution of some significance (no matter its size) levied within the labyrinthine infrastructure of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll? If the BJM’s contribution to altering the status quo of rock isn’t by exact definition revolutionary (in that its reach didn’t touch upon every suburban living room, urban high rise, and rural farm), it shouldn’t pass without being recognized as one of many sources of trickle-down influence felt in the ranks of rock, passed on like a virus from the underground to the mainstream: It may not be on everyone’s lips, but it’s in the water. Newcombe presented his revolutionary potential as definitive gospel, exempt from objections or scrutiny, force-fed with anger, menace, and self-righteousness, and because of that, it floundered. We all love to see the underdog prevail, but ultimately, as in Dig!, the underdog’s demise makes for riveting cinema.