red lights

Conquer nothing


Movie review
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: June 22, 2005

Directed, Written, Produced, Photographed and Edited by Ondi Timoner
featuring Anton Newcombe and the Brian Jonestown Massacre,
Courtney Taylor and the Dandy Warhols
Rated: R (for language and drug use)
107 Minutes

Movie review by David Malsch

There are usually two different kinds of music documentaries. One deals mostly with live performance like Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense. The other type is almost a reality TV format where we meet the band, experience their lives on and off stage- warts and all. DiG! falls into the latter category. It tells the story of two emerging bands in the mid to late nineties called the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) and the Dandy Warhols who were out to conquer the world. These two bands grew up on sixties psychedelic rock and were obsessed with bringing it to the mainstream.

BJM leader Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhol lead singer Courtney Taylor became fans of each other's music long before they even met each other. They quickly bonded over the desire to not conform to the record industry; they were going to take the music business by storm. They became star crossed friends in the beginning but ended up bitter rivals in the end. DiG! starts out to expose these two bands to the world but ends up documenting their rise and possible fall. 

Filmmaker Ondi Timoner spent seven years making this film. She was given full access to both bands from the years 1995-2003. Timoner filmed over 1,500 hours of footage during that span and somehow made it into a feature film instead of a mini series. There are no fancy filmmaking techniques in this film; it's a very bare bones attempt. DiG! is shot on digital video. Sound and lightning are not the best but it has a very real feel to it that I enjoyed very much. Much of the drama in this film feels so real that it makes you uncomfortable at times, you feel as if you are in the middle of an intervention with friends. What I like is how it begins as one film and then slowly turns into another.

The heart of film lies in the lack of stability in Anton Newcombe. He is the musical genius of BJM that is ready to explode onto the music scene, except the main explosions are coming from inside his head. The genius of his music pales in comparison to the madness that he inhabits. There is a revolving door with BJM because other musicians ultimately can't work with him. He is abusive, egotistical and a ranting lunatic who is so obsessed with not selling out to the mainstream, while trying to become the mainstream. He doesn't compromise. It's his way or no way. In one of the most brutal scenes in the film we see BJM at an industry showcase at the infamous Viper Room in L.A. It's their biggest show ever and Newcombe decides to sabotage it with fighting on stage with his band mates and ultimately sparking a riot within the crowd. There's also a scene in Ohio where BJM play a 10-hour show at a communist party headquarters to a crowd of half a dozen people. We see by the end of the film that this is why Newcombe and BJM never conquered anything.

The Dandy Warhol's however took the opposite route with the business and signed with Capitol records. We see through them the excess of the business and what little help major labels have for indie bands. If you aren't in a band succeeding from the get-go with a major label then they have little need for you. With America not listening, the Dandies head off to Europe where they have become huge successes. They play huge festivals with the biggest of bands and they sell a ton of albums.

This doesn't sit well with Newcombe and BJM. They decide that the Dandies have become the enemy and the war begins. They start a hate campaign through the press, they release albums slagging them and they even try to sabotage their shows. All this is too much for the Dandies to deal with so they take restraining orders out on BJM. Taylor is the most hurt by all of this because of his utter respect for Newcombe. Taylor was convinced that Newcombe was the type of artist that Taylor wanted to be musically. Taylor felt he would forever play follow the leader with Newcombe when it came to music. Maybe it was likewise for Newcombe who admired Taylor's comfort with stardom, but admissions like that don't come out, not in this film.

DiG! premiered at Sundance in 2004 and won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries. It also played many other festivals including SxSW. The 2-disc DVD has hours of extra footage including three commentary tracks by both bands and the filmmakers, also included are some music videos.

It is a terrific film about indie music that aspiring musicians should see. It gives great insight to the business of music, life on the road and relationships between fellow artists. The music is inspiring but the business and the pitfalls of success are frustrating, it's like not being able to take your eyes off a car crash. I was a big fan of both bands before I saw this film and became an even bigger fan afterwards. Musically, BJM is the better band but the Dandies will far succeed them. The best documentaries feature the most interesting characters and Anton Newcombe is one of those people for better or worse. As a music fan you want Newcombe to succeed and be happy, but that probably won't happen, he won't let it.

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