Big on 'DIG!'

Darkly hilarious, this may be the best rock documentary I’ve seen.

By Steve Burgess 15 Oct 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Good planning or more likely good luck—the new documentary Dig! opened downtown at the Granville Cinemas on the same day as its polar opposite, the new Hilary Duff opus Raise Your Voice. But frankly, Dig! doesn’t need the helpful comparison. It may be the best rock and roll documentary I’ve ever seen.

Dig! is one of those happy accidents where a filmmaker shows up to record one thing and then ends up catching something else. Not that it was an easy catch—Ondi Timoner spent six years on this project, which began as a survey of underground rock and roll on the West Coast and ended as the tale of two bands on divergent tracks. At the urging of rocker Anton Newcombe, Timoner decided to narrow his focus from 10 bands to two—The Dandy Warhols and Newcombe’s band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The bands are each other’s biggest fans and supporters, both determined to kick a moribund industry in the ass with a subversive brand of retro Sixties-influenced pop.

However, if Brian Jonestown Massacre is to succeed it will have to overcome a major obstacle—Anton Newcombe. Open your Oxford English Dictionary to “self-proclaimed misunderstood creative genius wack-job” and there his portrait will be. Early in the film, BJM scores a major industry showcase, playing an LA club before an audience of label reps ready to make them rich and famous. The resulting fiasco is the funniest scene in the movies this year, a disaster that would have been too implausible to draw laughs if Dig! had been a scripted comedy. Newcombe is an astoundingly self-involved individual, seemingly incapable of putting on party manners at appropriate times. Or it may well be that, as the pop psychologists around him suggest, he is eternally bent on self-sabotage.

Hyphenated hypester

Luckily for the Dandy Warhols they are led by Courtney Taylor-Taylor, a far cannier individual. The Dandies sign with a major label and begin the long, frustrating climb to mainstream success while Newcombe and BJM crank out quick guerrilla albums in makeshift studios (Newcombe boasts that the album “Thank God for Mental Illness” cost 17 dollars to make).

Estrangement between the former allies is perhaps inevitable, but it is exacerbated by Newcombe’s bizarre behavior—at one point he sends the Dandies a package of shotgun shells labeled with the band members’ names. Later he insists he was just trying to start a fictional feud to hype album sales. Through it all Newcombe is always forgiven by those he torments because, they all agree, he’s a frickin’ genius.

Perhaps the one major drawback to Dig! is that it’s difficult to tell whether that’s true. The Dandy Warhols’ music is heard to much better advantage in the film—maybe their mainstream path led to better recording equipment. BJM gigs on the other hand seem to have been taped by whatever mike happened to be attached to the camera. It’s hard to hear how Newcombe’s songs stack up. We are left with the testimony of various scenesters who list off more successful acts influenced by Newcombe’s work.

Sold out

Still, by following the spoor of these two bands Dig! manages to provide a hilarious catalogue of rock lunacy while simultaneously illustrating the central dilemma of rock and roll music—what does it mean to sell out? Is integrity always sacrificed when a band pursues stardom? Or is an artist’s responsibility to reach the largest possible audience?

There’s no question where Newcombe stands on that issue. The only question is whether he could control himself even if he wanted to.

Meanwhile the Dandies, screwed over by bad industry marketing, succeed through the back door anyway thanks to the underground artists’ perennial best friend—hip foreigners. A European cell phone ad makes a hit out of the propulsive pop gem “Bohemian Like You” and suddenly the Dandy Warhols are playing for hordes of fans who actually sing along to their songs.

And Newcombe? He’s being hauled off to jail after kicking a heckler in the skull. To each his own, I guess.

Land of radio cheese

I came out of this film urging strangers in the lobby to go see it. It’s tricky to review a film that you like as much as I liked this one—obviously it struck some personal chord, or I was in the right mood, or I was desperately in need of inspiration after a diet of horse ka-ka like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (even the mediocre reviews that thing got were too kind by a factor of 10).

But I feel confident in saying that if you have any love for rock and roll whatsoever, you will be captivated by Dig! The movie filled me with the desire to work a little harder to find the music that’s out there beneath the radar, particularly in the classic rock radio-land we call Vancouver. Aerosol cheese like Duff’s Raise Your Voice handily makes the case for Dig!, both as a film and as a battle cry. The real thing is out there. Go fetch.

Steve Burgess reviews television, film and other stuff for The Tyee.

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