||"There are two kinds of people in the world, those with loaded guns and those who dig."
||Anton Newcombe, The Brian Jonestown Massacre
||"I guess I sort of thought that eventually he'd get over all this nonsense and he'd grow up and he'd get a real job, but he never has."
||Anton Newcombe's mother reflects on her son's life and career
It's widely understood that rock 'n' roll is a breeding ground for egomaniacs, more so even than a movie world, and that's one place you only have to spit to hit one. Each of these industries measure success largely in financial terms, just like any business, but the products of both are the result of artistic vision and endeavour, and the greatness of art is not a matter of money, but opinion. Opinion is thus the true currency of such industries, which is why, of course, so many working within the fields of art and entertainment are overly opinionated. It's not a universal thing by any means. I have a good friend who is a professional musician of many years standing, one whose success over the years ensures a sizeable collection of Google hits on his name and who has his own detailed Wikipedia entry, and a nicer guy you couldn't hope to meet. But that formula of youth+fame=money+drugs has created more than its share of notable casualties, and when fan appreciation mutates into hero worship and an artist starts believing his or her own press, then you just know there's trouble ahead.
DiG! chronicles a seven-year period for two bands fronted by two good friends, Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols and Anton Newcombe of The Brian Johnstown Massacre. As the film kicks off, the two groups are hanging out with each other and even playing at the same gigs. Neither has a record contract, but they do have an unbridled enthusiasm for their music, and both are pretty damned good. But as the Warhols land that dreamed-of record contract and take their first steps on the road to rock stardom, things repeatedly misfire for the BJM, and a once strong friendship begins to mutate into unpleasant rivalry.
Key to DiG!'s considerable appeal are the insane number of hours put in by the filmmakers over a time period that a studio-funded product would almost deem financially unviable. This results in a closeness to both of the central characters and the capturing on tape and film of events that you'd usually expect to have related second-hand through interview or third party material. We thus get to witness first-hand a number of career-defining moments for both bands, including the separate on-the-road busting of both for drug possession, dual events that neatly illustrate their differing fortunes – while the fully cooperative Anton is arrested in Georgia, a last straw that results in the break-up of his band, Courtney and the Warhols are merely cautioned by the French police, allowed to keep their drugs and let off with a fine that is the monetary equivalent of "four Dandy Warhols T-shirts." As one of the Warhols observes of the comparison: "We are a lucky band and they are a not lucky band." That, by this point, seems to be putting it mildly.
With Courtney narrating, there is an unshakable feeling that much of the story is largely unfolding from his viewpoint. Anton is increasingly cast as the bad guy and presented as the principal reason for the falling out of the two bands, coming across as an unstable and confrontational egotist who resented the Warhols' success and whose grasp on the realities of the music industry and even the modern world is tenuous at best. There's certainly little doubt that Anton had major issues and that his heroin usage was not exactly helping matters: a concert arranged to impress industry figures in California ends up in an on-stage brawl; a possible contract with Capitol is blown by Anton in under an hour; band members almost take it in turns to leave (numerous times in the case of tambourine man and resident clown Joel Gion); and gigs repeatedly stall for Anton to berate or attack the audience and/or his fellow musicians.
Now I'm not disputing for a second that Anton was at times impossible to live and work with, but it's my nature to sympathise with the outsider and Anton certainly qualifies here. His own view of this film was that it reduced years of hard work to "a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context, and at worst, bald-faced lies and misrepresentation of fact." And while there is no denying that the authenticity of the on-screen conflicts, you are left wondering, given the time span over which they occurred, whether they are representative of the norm or the exception to the rule. After all, Anton is far from the only singer to lose his rag on stage (I seem to remember Tudor-Pole of Tenpole Tudor throwing chairs at the undersized audience at a university gig) and more than once here his anger is shown to be at least partially justified. Of course the anecdotal evidence is impossible to dismiss, with just about everyone who worked with or got close to Anton giving up on him sooner or later, their reasons summarised by departing manager David Doresinski when he proclaims that "Anton is a great songwriter and arranger, but he is so horrible in so many ways."
What comes through undiluted is the unquestionable talent of both men, and it becomes increasingly clear that while The Dandy Warhols make damned good music, The Brian Jonestown Massacre were touched by greatness and that Anton may well be the genius he paints himself as. Of course, it's that very self-proclamation that proves the biggest problem for most viewers and real-world associates, who are happy to recognise such a talent in others but prefer their geniuses to be a little modest about it. Even so, it's a trait that others repeatedly recognise and admire in Anton, in spite of their feelings towards him as a person. At the end of the film Courtney describes his former friend as "this brilliant monster creator of art that generally is three years ahead. And I always think I'm catching up to him and then he comes up with something and I can't believe what he just did. He's just always ahead. He's so amazing." He's also by the end a lot more interesting than Courtney and the Warhols, who have become part of a machine that Anton continues to rage against.
In spite of my gripes, DiG! is still an energetic, impressively detailed and enthralling chronicle of two bands and their personal and professional divergence. While Anton and the BJM tend to hold centre stage – they are, after all, living most music fans' definition of the true rock 'n' roll lifestyle – the Warhols' bumpy ride to international fame and success also proves involving, with their failure to ignite on home turf ("The Dandy Warhols are the reason why people get laid off at record labels" observes one commentator) reversed when they score big in Europe following the use of their Bohemian Like You on a UK mobile phone commercial. And by the end, the rough-round-the-edges Anton and the image-groomed Courtney both appear to have achieved what they set out to do – in league with and in spite of the record companies just about everyone here holds in contempt, they're both making the music they want on their own terms. They may never play together again, but ultimately they're both working to the same idealistic ends. And in an industry increasingly dominated by non-creative money men, that's something we can all cheer for.
DiG! was shot over a seven-year period on a variety of cameras and media, including – deep breath – Hi-8 video, surveillance cameras feeding to Hi-8, DV, 8mm film, 16mm film and 35mm film, some of which has been creatively treated in post-production. This does make traditional judgements of picture quality tricky to make, as detail, grain and colour vary from sequence to sequence. Contrast and black levels appear fine, however, and there is no obvious picture issues beyond those endemic in the source material. Frankly the multi-format presentation works very nicely for the film.
The favourite Tartan trio of sound options are available: Dolby stereo 2.0, Dolby surround 5.1 and DTS surround 5.1. It's no surprise that the surround tracks have the edge, with a better a spread on the music and more punch to the bass, with the louder, richer DTS track emerging the clear winner of the three.
Now here's the rub. And it's a big bloody rub that has already upset a few fans of the film. It also delayed this review while I procured a release disc of the film, convinced that the preview DVD I'd been sent was somehow unrepresentative of the final version, the one that Tartan themselves had advertised as a 2-disc special edition that was designed to make amends for their previous, movie-only release. The chronic deficiency of that first release was highlighted by a storming US 2-disc release from Palm Pictures that included 3 commentaries and two hours of deleted footage, and the expectations were that this long delayed new Special Edition would go a good way to matching Palm's disc. Er, not quite. Gone is the second disc and there are no sign of the commentaries from the Palm release. What we do have are...
Theatrical Trailer (2:11)
A pretty good sell, but then how could it not be with the footage at the trailer makers' disposal?
Ondi Timoner Interview (15:08)
Only 15 minutes long but consistently interesting nonetheless, the interview is packed with informaton on the production and Timoner's relationship with both bands, or as packed as 15 minutes can be. Of course, it's still a rather weak substitute for the full-length commentary found on the Palm disc.
Deleted Scenes (33:02)
Yes, they're here, but no, they don't run for the hoped-for two hours but about a quarter of that length. In their own right they make for compelling viewing and are particularly favourable to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, showing us more of the lighter side of a band that here seem more more fun to hang out with than the Warhols. Joel Gion once again emerges as the principal comedy performer, and there's a nice illustration of the group's relaxed attitude backstage at the Monterey Festival, when some fooling around for camera with Matt Hollywood (co-founder of the band and someone who comes across as terribly serious in the film proper) is brought to a sudden but easy-going end when Matt says simply "it's time to go on." Many of the sequences are edited and scored for final inclusion, with the BTM's trip to London a smart little movie all in itself. The down side, of course, as this can't help but whet your appetite for the 90 minutes of deleted scenes that didn't make it.
Oh well. For all my personal gripes about the black brush with which Anton is painted, DiG! is still a damned fine rockumentary that comes highly recommended to all fans of this particular sub-genre. Tartan's DVD is an improvement over the previous movie-only release but is still not the disc we were hoping for or expecting. Hardcore fans will thus once again be looking across the water to the Palm release.