DIG!

Quick:  does anyone remember the song “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth” by the Dandy Warhols?  Kind of?  Does the name Brian Jonestown Massacre ring a bell?  Barely?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone.  Knowing (or even liking) the bands or the music in DIG! is not necessary for enjoyment.  Don’t get me wrong, the Dandies and the BJM both had some great songs, but, unlike most rock docs, the music takes a back seat to the story.

And what a story it is.  DIG! chronicles the rise of the Dandy Warhols, the subsequent jealousy of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the peculiar relationship between head Dandy Courtney Taylor and head Jonesy Anton Newcombe.  Both bands came from the same “let’s just take a bunch of drugs and see what happens” indie pop scene of the mid-late 90s, and their excess is chronicled in great length by director Ondi Timoner.  Newcombe’s taste for heroin combined with his jealousy over his best friend’s success (the Dandies were signed to a major while BJM managed to sabotage any chance at being signed by anyone) turn him into one of rock’s biggest train wrecks and cautionary tales.  Yes, in lots of ways, this is a drug film, but only on the surface.  Timoner paints Newcombe as some sort of genius whose addictions keep him from achieving anything of any import.  When the BJM plays a label showcase at LA’s Viper Room, Newcombe picks a fistfight with co-songwriter Matt Hollywood, which ends in a full scale brawl on stage.  In front of label reps.  The scene is both gloriously entertaining and wholly frightening.  Newcombe was a seriously violent man on stage; later in the film we see him kick one of his own fans in the face with a boot.

Every last person in the film calls Newcombe a genius, but it is never really apparent why.  One interviewee goes so far as to claim that, with the right help, Newcombe would have been mentioned in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney.  Sure, the BJM’s music is good, even great at times.  But it’s hard to find the intangibles that Newcombe’s friends claim make him great.  Perhaps they are just as drunk on Newcombe as he is on himself.  While only a minor distraction, the hero worship of a guy who, let’s face it, was a fucking asshole can become a bit grating.  It is clear from the start that, despite the double billing of both bands on the film’s cover, and narration by Courtney Taylor, that this is Newcombe’s film.

The other half of DIG! focuses on the Dandies’ relationship with their label, Capitol Records.  The famous Capitol Building in LA is often shown from a dark angle, making the landmark look more hellish than it really is.  But such a portrayal of the label is fair.  After dumping $400,000 on uber-chic director David LaChappelle for “Junkie’s” clip, the label wanted a follow up hit.  In a world that was starting to become less and less guitar-centric, asking a group as psychedelic as the Dandy Warhols to write another hit song is about as futile as someone to run face first into a hurricane; no matter how hard they try, it just won’t happen.  It’s this plot that sets DIG! apart from any other rock doc; while Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart chronicles their search for a label, it never truly shows Jeff Tweedy & Co. being hassled by label brass, demanding an album.  It seems as if the Dandies would kill for that kind of attention; Capitol literally pays them no mind.  While the group had artistic freedom, they also had the pressure of following up a hit with a label who showed little interest in their work.

While the Dandies and BJM were just two more psych-pop bands from the mid-90s, their songwriting was strong enough to separate them from the pack.  DIG! in and of itself is a story that’s been heard a million times:  label hates band, bands hate each other, drugs send band on downward spiral.  It’s Timoner’s awed vision that makes DIG! better than, say, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.  The uniqueness of each band member (John Lennon carbon copy Matt Hollywood, huge glasses/tossled hair of Joel Gion, the reserved yet boisterous Zia McCabe) make them characters instead of mere musicians, and they help us to identify with them.  DIG! is told with all the care of the world’s most vulgar fairytale, one with anything but a happy ending.

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