2004Director: Ondi Timoner
Cast: The Dandy Warhols, The Brian Jonestown Massacre
f the seven years of work and 1500 hours of footage shot, perhaps the most revealing moment in Dig! happens just before The Dandy Warhols hit it big and the Brian Jonestown Massacre slowly self-destructs. The two singer-songwriters from each band, Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe respectively, sit in a van and listen to the Dandy’s new single “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”. Taylor sits, bouncing up and down a bit, mouthing the words to the song and Newcombe sits stunned, immobile and impassive. It perfectly encapsulates the film: how Newcombe, despite supposed superior talent, always sits unable or unwanting to do anything to further his career and how Taylor sits besides him, wondering how he can be so lucky to be more popular than his fellow songwriter, but never looking into it too deeply, perhaps scared of the answers he might find.
But Taylor is no dummy. He is the lead singer and primary songwriter of The Dandy Warhols after all. He calls every shot, in fact. He plucked his keyboard player out from behind a coffeehouse counter. When his drummer bitches about his share of the monetary pot, Taylor fires him. “I write all the songs. All the songs. I produce all of the records. All of the records. And I’m generous enough to give the band half of my songwriting royalties”. He also, curiously, never looks directly at the camera the entire time of the film he narrates, but instead of finding his irrevocable self-command a pain in the ass, it’s a welcome foil when we learn about Newcombe.
About to get it over with and just make out…
Newcombe, the lead singer and songwriter, gear fiend, self-destructing, and most of all, prolific to a fault, leader of his band, curates his group as vanity—sure, his bass player writes a few songs, but what’s ten or so out of hundreds?—firing and hiring and rehiring more than forty members over a ten-year span. We watch former band members that don’t even appear in the story bitch about him: they were hired after the last time we see Newcombe, and fired since the film’s release.
Newcombe watches the band slip away from him, as we learn, refusing to assert any control over his band’s future. He makes immediate decisions—writing and recording a song in front of the camera—but the direction is all washed psychedelia. His fickle, childlike whines: “you fucking broke my sitar, motherfucker” are all directed at the camera.
The film offers up a number of interesting things to analyze: the band’s dichotomies, the way the record industry works or even the fact that The Dandys and the BJM have made careers out of small variances on the same chords and melodies. But this film is less a rock document and more a character study: is Newcombe jealous of Taylor’s success? Is Taylor cognizant of his buffoonery? Will they both look great on camera?
This is about two highly talented, self-involved singers’ rivalry. Their bands serve as commentary; their soundbites flicker over Taylor’s and Newcombe’s woe-is-meisms and their guidance serves to help us, not them, decide who we like.
Newcombe was once an idol of Taylor’s—and if the film’s concluding interviews have us believe, he still is. But as the film progresses, we watch and hear Taylor become not just the antithesis of Newcombe, but someone proud of it. The Dandys play to 100,000 fans at Reading, and just a few years earlier, we see the BJM playing to ten people at a Cleveland Communist venue.
“We’re building a studio together,” Newcombe proudly announced.
“I will not tolerate any more of his shit,” Taylor later says. Other band members announce that they never want to see the BJM again. “Yeah, but I’ll still buy their records,” guitarist Peter Holstrom says.
He won’t tolerate anymore of this shit.
There are unmistakable images in this film: the BJM singing along to “Junkie” and gleefully pretending to shoot up, while Taylor digs in on the narrating track. Newcombe sneaking into the back of a frame as Dandys keyboardist Zia McCabe tells the camera that she’s afraid he’s going to kill the Dandys. “If I wanted to kill you,” he says, “I would’ve already done it.” Taylor whining about Capitol’s apathy towards the band’s career as he wanders the streets of New York, periodically shirtless (“I sneeze and hits come out,” he says). We even meet Newcombe’s father, apologizing and telling the camera that he’s sorry he wasn’t a better father. We even get fringe talking head interviews—with Genesis P’Orridge (Throbbing Gristle) berating major labels, and various A&R; reps praising the failed BJM and bashing the Dandys. But despite all this, the movie lags when it forgets that it’s about Newcombe and Taylor.
We watch Taylor, again acting removed at the sight of this film acting as a long-form Dandy Warhols promo, seguing into his band’s ‘high life’ and blasting their singles on the soundtrack. But like Newcombe’s most telling moment is his jealous stoicism, so is Taylor’s, spouting on about how he can no longer relate to him. He won’t acknowledge the camera, and Newcombe’s last clip is just the opposite. He begs the camera, asking why bands won’t acknowledge his greatness. He tries to dispel any notion that he cares about Taylor: “he’s not writing songs for me”, just as Taylor does with him. But by the end of Dig, we know better.
By: Sam Bloch
Published on: 2004-10-11