[box cover]

DiG!

"There were a lot of bands in the '60s who got messed up on drugs," observes one bystander in DiG! (2004). "But that happened after they got famous." Which perhaps sums up a lot about the latest generation of tattooed and strung-out post-GenX rock 'n' rollers — it's one thing to be an alcoholic, chain-smoking junkie when you're also a musical genius; it's something quite different when booze and junk are your daily fuel and being famous is something you regard as an entitlement. Documentarian Ondi Timoner's fly-on-the-wall look at two west-coast American bands is a fascinating study of ambition and the vagaries of the music industry, and while it isn't exactly a film about music, it's about a pair of personalities who hope to transform their own realities with overnight success — which happens to be more interesting. Courtney Taylor is the singer/songwriter for Portland, Oregon's The Dandy Warhols, a group that formed in the mid-'90s during the alterna-rock surge and signed a major-label deal with Capitol after just one release. Anton Newcombe is the creative force behind San Francisco's The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a retro outfit that traffics in '60s psychedelia and multi-instrumentation. With both bands on the rise (favorites of the rock press and A&R agents), the two form a close bond, starting when the Dandys travel to the Bay Area for several gigs, followed thereafter when Newcombe and his cohorts relocate briefly to Portland to record an album. But success is elusive, and in this case double-edged — while the Dandys score a radio hit in 1996 with "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," BJM undermines itself by allowing an L.A. gig for A&R reps to degenerate into an on-stage fistfight. Taylor has a record deal, but he's unsatisfied with his representation at Capitol, whom he feels aren't promoting the Dandys enough. However, such are the problems of signed artists — Newcombe's crew turns out several self-produced albums, but his increasingly erratic behavior makes record execs nervous, and by the time BJM hits the road on a self-supported tour across the U.S., it's clear they're either wasted, delusional, or both. At one midwest gig, they play for a crowd of 10 people. In Chicago, two band members abruptly quit. And then in Georgia, their van is pulled over and all are cited for marijuana possession, bringing the tour to an early end. BJM's fortunes change when a new record label agrees to sign them. But in the few years since they met The Dandy Warhols, they can only fall back on their indie cred — the Dandys become massively popular in Europe, where they sell out London clubs and headline major festivals. They've also made it clear they want little to do with Anton Newcombe anymore, whose behavior becomes stalkerish enough that one member takes out a restraining order.

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Were DiG! a work of fiction, it would make a compelling movie in its own right. The fact that the events are captured in an erratic, verité fashion (the mark of great ambush documentaries) is what makes it even more palpable — Ondi Timoner's cameras have a knack for getting in the middle of an argument, on the edge of the stage when a fight erupts, or in the half-darkness when the film's subjects are prepared to treat the lens as either a soapbox or a confessional. And while Courtney Taylor (who also narrates) serves as one of the film's two principals, rags-to-riches sagas are dull — DiG! is about the very strange Anton Newcombe. A temperamental personality who charts somewhere between an adolescent head-case and a mild schizophrenic (one of The Brian Jonestown Massacre's albums is entitled Thank God for Mental Illness), he's described by several people as a musical polymath of genius stature. It's hard to hear enough of his work in the film to form a clear opinion, but Taylor's praise of Newcombe's talent is effusive. However, Newcombe also is afflicted with a low-grade messiah complex, often talking about "revolution" as much as he talks about music, utterly convinced of his imminent superstardom, and promising record executives he'll make them a whole lot of money. Incapable of any sort of meaningful, self-critical introspection, it seems those who like him least are the ones who are closest to him, and his ongoing feud with bassist Matt Hollywood is one of the film's most notable dramatic arcs. Compared to Anton Newcombe, slacker-hip Courtney Taylor comes across as a conscientious, industrious young man — he's certainly capable of a meltdown or two (in a fine moment, he vents his frustration about the "industry" to the camera while walking down a Manhattan street), but where the Dandys think the rock-star lifestyle is a bit of a game, BJM plays it all too real, and the band's eventual disintegration is suitably contrasted with the Dandys' success in Britain in Europe. By film's end, The Dandy Warhols have financed their own private multimedia complex in Portland, while Newcombe's small club performances (historically volatile events) inevitably draw a few drunks who simply heckle him in the hopes of starting a fight. Unsurprisingly, he complies. In the movie's earliest moments, it's apparent that Anton Newcombe agreed to appear in DiG! because he thought the product would be a simultaneous indictment of the music industry and hagiography of himself. And with the final cut in theaters and on DVD, it's entirely possible that he thinks it worked out that way.

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Palm Pictures' two-disc DVD release of DiG! offers a good transfer of the full-frame documentary (1.33:1) from various video and film sources, while audio is delivered on a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, also from varying sources. Disc One includes three commentary tracks, the best of which is provided by director Ondi Timoner and co-producers David Timoner and Vasco Lucas Nunes, while members of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre sit for separate, informal tracks (Anton Newcombe did not record a commentary or participate in any of the DVD material). Also on Disc One are "Link Outs" with on-the-fly icons during the film, which can be disabled. Disc Two's packed features start off with "Performances & Music Videos," which includes three Dandy Warhols videos, two live performances by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and a brief "jam session." "Bonus Footage" includes 20 deleted segments, most of which fans of the film will find interesting. "Where Are They Now?" is the most valuable of the supplements, as several of the film's principals are encouraged to deconstruct the project. Courtney Taylor, still on good terms with Anton Newcombe, describes him as nothing more than "a bad drunk". Finally, "After the Release" includes four post-debut interviews with various principals. Also on board are trailers, weblinks, and DVD credits. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—JJB



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