Words On Film: DiG!

Ondi Timoner's 2004 documentary DiG! came to me through my friend Mary Kate. Knowing that the film follows The Dandy Warhols (a band I had loved in the late 90s) and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (a band I had heard only sparse details about) I was instantly intrigued. Rock documentaries have the power to be informative and entertaining in equal doses, and musicians are often the best artists to view in candid moments. The problem inherent to documentary film is that countless hours of footage can be taken, but ultimately it must be boiled down and edited into something of theatrical length. And the result, the story that is created from the individual experiences largely falls to the director and her perspective. Instead of being free and allowing the viewer to judge all for themselves, a director punctuates moments and scenes for gravity to maintain whatever theme she wants to construe. In the case of DiG! Timoner writes her own story of the rise of The Dandy Warhols and the mercurial non-rise of BJM, but she succeeds most in not picking sides.

Timoner begins the story with Courtney Taylor-Taylor's admiration and hero worship of Anton Newcombe. Newcombe, the leader and principle songwriter for BJM, is presented as a musical savant and a madman from the first scene. In a way, DiG! is built to point out how great musically Newcombe is, but also how his unfettered insanity and drug abuse would never let him succeed. Taylor-Taylor, by contrast, is promoted as the grounded but less talented student of the same 60s revival school. Allowing/tapping Taylor-Taylor to narrate via voice-over throughout the film seems to place Timoner squarely on the side of his band, but the actions taken by Taylor-Taylor, and his inconsistent and detached love for Newcombe complicates that initial gut feeling.

Viewing the film, I felt initially that Newcombe was just insane. Talented, yes, but completely insane. And that this film was built as a sort of torture porn predicated on Newcombe's decline and failure. That wasn't completely correct, but it wasn't completely wrong either. While BJM runs aground multiple times and The Dandy Warhols rise to the top, most of it is Newcombe's fault, his incapability to maintain a semblance of professionalism during numerous big opportunities. And although Taylor-Taylor seems to be the "together" musician, he is clearly also a complete prima donna who never appears satisfied with his success or opportunity, and watches idly while touring with BJM as the band decays and falls apart, saying "It wasn't my tour so I just had a good time."

Newcombe on the other hand spends the majority of the film ranting, composing and fighting (verbally and physically) with band mates and audience members. But when BJM actually plays, they are clearly the more interesting, more skilled and more powerful band. Don't get me wrong, I love The Dandy Warhols, but they aren't the greatest writers or musicians, they succeed with quality pop songs. So, possibly the most telling section of the film comes when "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" premiered and Newcombe composed an entire album in reaction over the course of the next seven days with the single "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth". Writing a complete album (Give It Back) so quickly seems indicative of great genius and also potentially great bipolarity. Newcombe's erratic, nonsensical behavior points squarely at mental instability, and not merely eccentricity. Yet, the film never addresses this, and neither his band mates, nor anyone in The Dandy Warhols ever confronts him with that concern. It makes you feel bad that Newcombe was so talented and no one tried (at least in the film) to explore his health issues or save him. Instead, his madness is tolerated as the cost of his genius, and only when he blows up do any of the other principle players take action... and then only of self-preservation.

Even when Taylor-Taylor is surprised that Newcombe has attempted to start a rivalry between the two bands, it reeked of selfishness. Just before, The Dandy Warhols had dropped in on BJM's new band house to do a professional photo shoot funded by Capitol Records. Taylor-Taylor behaves like a childish prick, leading people into their "friends'" home just to co-opt their living conditions and environment as something The Dandy Warhols owned. None of these people, ultimately are worth sympathy. They all exist only for their own gain. Newcombe wants fame, but refuses to cooperate with his band or any musical entity. Taylor-Taylor says he wants BJM to become big, but takes consistent action to undermine the band's fragile stability. Only the backing members of BJM (Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood) appear even sentient and caring for their futures and the happiness of the band. So, essentially DiG! just exposes and reiterates the "selfish-druggy-rockstar" paradigm through two meteoric personalities.

I didn't feel good when The Dandy Warhols gained success. And I didn't feel bad when The Brian Jonestown Massacre didn't. Instead, it was just a feeling of acceptance. One selfish band won, largely because they could play by big label rules. And the other band fell into relative obscurity because they couldn't do the label thing, and they couldn't get along. Overall though, DiG! is an aquarium full of selfish personalities (saved only by a few people) dancing around and vying for affection. Timoner does an excellent job of leaving the audience without any clear thesis. She never passes judgment on Newcombe, or on Taylor-Taylor, allowing their actions to speak for themselves. If you want a wild viewing experience, peppered with the coked up whining of talented people, this film is essential. It has piqued my interest in BJM, and caused me to question some of my love for The Dandy Warhols. I admire Newcombe's uncompromising artistic nature and dislike Taylor-Taylor's whiny pseudo-philosophical act, but all in all, I love both bands more because there is a window to their history and what must be the history of many other small rock groups just trying to catch a break.

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