Dir: Ondi Timoner, 2004. Starring: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Joel Gion. Documentaries.

Dig! is a completely unreliable documentary about two rock bands who were around in the late 1990s -the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You do not have to be fans of these bands to find this movie entertaining. I didn’t believe for a second that what I was watching was anything more than some amateur footage of two bands with a clumsy narrative about success, art, commerce and “selling out” (one of the really quaint concepts that shows you how different things are now) grafted on, but it’s worthwhile because it’s a film with some genuine characters – goofballs, sleazy good time Charlies, and actually some really good music. Part of the charm of these bands is how little they had in common with the music scene at the time.

I present a recap:

If you remember the rock scene in the U.S. way back in the 1990s you might recall the mid-to-late portion of that decade as kind of a wash out. It’s not that great music wasn’t being made but after Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended Nirvana, the phenomenon of alternative music ushering in a cultural revolution seemed to have dissipated. Bands signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s success were dropped and terrible one hit wonders became radio staples from bands with names like Better Than Ezra and Marcy Playground.

In England, Britpop would reinvigorate a dormant music industry with genuine excitement, the cream of that crop exuding far more style and smart hooks than their U.S. counterparts, even if the really great groups were few and far between. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the indie rock scene adjusted to less exposure with vanguard groups like Sonic Youth and Pavement quietly going back underground, any mainstream flirtation being more of a laugh than something to take seriously. Those bands never had the torturous problems with mainstream acceptance that Cobain dealt with, probably because they knew they were never in any real danger of getting as big as Nirvana. Pretty soon Beck would come to define the cut up post-modern pre-millennial aesthetic and then Nu Metal would come along to ruin everything before The Strokes and The White Stripes would make rock n’ roll popular again. It all seems so quaint now!

This is the world the Dandys and BJM inhabited and you could say they had more in common with arrogant twerps like Oasis than the dour indie rock world of the time. These guys wanted to be rock gods. They didn’t care about Kurt Cobain or Daniel Johnston or Lou Barlow. They wanted to be the Velvet Underground or Love or (probably?) The Doors and Duran Duran. Okay, probably just the Dandys wanted to be Duran Duran. Nowadays that would be a completely uncontroversial ambition, but back then that was heretical. As the movie shows the Dandys really did get kind of big on the strength of some masterful singles that blew up in Europe. BJM, meanwhile, lurch psychotically down the highway doing shows, getting in fights, shooting dope, and generally being too unstable to have the kind of big career the Dandys aim for.

This is the rather predictable set up and the director chooses footage that seems to support her premeditated outcome. I doubt any of these guys really believe this is the way things happened to them, but all the same, the movie is kind of a blast. It’s about being young, dumb, and full of it. It’s about a group of rock n’ roll losers who know they’re ripping off people who are way cooler than the people everyone else are trying to be. Eventually, as Anton, the scary and violent lead singer of BJM, points out, the world caught up with them and music changed, in some ways for the better. This is a time capsule of a few fragmented moments before the music industry would completely hit a wall and fall apart.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 4, 2013 7:56pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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