In one of the opening scenes of DiG!", (2004) Matt Hollywood screams at Anton Newcombe, "In every spiritual tradition, you burn in hell for pretending to be God and not being able to back it up!" If there was a thesis statement for "DiG!," then Hollywood has hit the nail on the head.
"DiG!" is a documentary that was nine years in the making about two American bands you may very well have never heard of: the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) and the Dandy Warhols (The Dandies). In the mid-1990's, both bands were, unlike most others, playing music that didn't sound like Pearl Jam or Nirvana. They were each doing something different, and even though they didn't sound remotely like one another, they enjoyed each others company and admired each others work. They were friends and they had big naive plans of starting a musical revolution. Early in the film, Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the BJM and the film's crazed star for the most part, stares into the camera and exclaims, "I'm here to destroy this fucked up system. I will do it. That's why I got the job. I said let it be me; I said use my hands. I will use our strength. Let's fuckin' burn it to the ground."
The film is full of these fabulous quotes from Newcombe, who is hell bent on making ground-breaking music and destroying everyone who gets in his way. Problem is: Anton is the person who most often gets in Anton's way, so he spends most of his life destroying himself. Anton seems to be split right down the middle: he wants to become a commercial success while at the same time despising the thought; he understands he needs band mates to play the other instruments but would much prefer if he could do it all himself; he wants to change music forever but wants nothing to do with the American music scene. And so, most of the film is about Anton running in circles and beating the shit out of himself. He fights endlessly with everyone in his life, often on stage during performances. In one scene, Anton picks a fight with his band mates during a gig at the Viper Room, in front of an audience of record executives from Elektra who are ready to sign him. He fights with his fans who aren't quiet or respectful enough during his performances. He fights with his producers for not having the patience to do punch-in after punch-in late into the night. He fights and fights and fights and, at the end of the day, he's left with nothing but his self-produced and distributed albums that only a handful of people ever hear and all agree are nothing short of brilliant.
The Dandies, on the other hand, refer to themselves as the "most adjusted band in America." They sign a deal with Capitol Records and soon become a hit in Europe and eventually America. They understand what it takes to deal with record executives and inner band squabbles and, as their careers take off, they watch in awe as the BJM set themselves on fire again and again. As the film rolls on, the two bands pull further and further apart, so much so that, by the end, it almost feels like a scripted drama about the "right" and "wrong" ways to start and run a rock band.
Going into the movie I had never heard of either band, nor the director (Ondi Timoner), and I recognized hardly any single person involved (aside from David LaChapelle or Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom make brief cameos). It's not one of those documentaries where you have to know or care about the band beforehand to enjoy the ride (like "loudQUIETloud: A Film about the Pixes" or "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco."). The film is more about being young and talented and crazy in America in the late 20th century, and it captures the essence of this brilliantly. For The Dandies, it's about watching a smart band go from nothing to something. For the BJM, it's about watching a talented group of musicians run into brick walls, proving it's not all about sheer talent.
By the time the credits rolled, I found myself almost numb with awe at how crazy Anton really was. You hear stories of crazy artists, but seeing it with your own eyes is something entirely different. It makes you realize that there really are people who live on earth but not in reality, people that are brilliant at a single thing and hopelessly terrible at everything else. And as sad as that is, it sure makes for a great documentary.