If you’re not a musician or somehow involved in the music industry, the 2004 documentary “Dig!” might seem like “This Is Spinal Tap”, a playful satire poking fun at the excess of musicians who have more ego and drugs than actual talent. But this is no satire. “Dig!” follows two real bands, Portland’s The Dandy Warhols and San Francisco’s The Brain Jonestown Massacre, over seven years from the mid-90s to the early 2000s through all the highs and lows of two music careers constantly on the brink of huge success and constantly imploding on itself.
Every rock & roll excess stereotype is present in this movie: arrogant band leaders, onstage brawls with the audience, heroin in the tour van, all the basics. There’s even an amp that, according to one infamous lead singer, goes up to 11. However, what makes “Dig!” worth watching is that, even though you’ve heard this story a million times, you’ve never seen it in the flesh like this raw and mostly entertaining, occasionally horrifying documentary.
The Dandy Warhols, whose lead singer Courtney Taylor narrates the documentary, exemplifies a typical rock band story: a band starts out small, plays as many gigs as possible, and works to write catchy songs with the hopes of getting signed to a major label (this was the mid-90s before Arcade Fire made it fashionable to be a mainstream indie band). The Brain Jonestown Massacre also portrays a typical rock band story, or this case a typical rock star personality crisis embodied by one Anton Newcombe, the man who writes all the songs, plays all the instruments, and essentially is BJM. Newcombe is eccentric, arrogant, and is usually lauded for his brilliant creative mind and how he’s the unheard voice of a generation (the “unheard” part seems about right; I can’t imagine most people knowing about BMJ before seeing this movie). Even Taylor, the jealous musician who knows he’s not as talented as his zealous friend, can only speak in awe of Newcombe’s songwriting abilities.
Although both bands played the same kind of music – an American take on the Britpop craze that was dominating the charts at the time – both frontmen were ambitious in different ways. Taylor wanted hit singles, expensive music videos, and mainstream success while Newcombe, usually locked in a room writing or recording, wanted nothing to do with the mainstream. It isn’t long before these clashing music philosophies (another rock & roll stereotype of “success” vs “real”) turned these friends into playful but then bitter rivals competing to be the “better” band. For the rest of the movie it’s Stones vs. Beatles, Oasis vs. Blur, pick any rivalry you want. The kicker, however, is that neither band is selling as many records or making as good of music.
The Dandys are eventually picked up by Capitol and become the hot new band, and label executives are throwing money and hype their way to produce hits. But the singles or albums aren’t selling, and Taylor dumps all the blame on the label for not letting the band be “themselves” or “real”. Taylor isn’t as crazy as Newcombe, but he’s just as vain. He’s complaining about slow album sales and he thinks the band should be doing better than it is. If only the music industry wasn’t so fucked up, it’s impossible to create meaningful art anymore, yada yada. Even after a sold out European tour and a hit single, 2000’s “Bohemian Like You”, Taylor still finds things to complain about in-between all the praise he bestows upon himself for his artistic vision.
But this documentary isn’t really about Taylor or his band. It’s about Anton Newcombe. The always tragic, always entertaining frontman embodies the heart and soul of “Dig!” and its message: you can get away with being an asshole if people think you’re a brilliant asshole. For Newcombe, the issue is that he’s too real, and for him to “be himself” is to be an insane control freak who is nearly impossible to work with or even to be in the same room with. His music is actually good enough that he could have some decent success if he wasn’t so busy threatening to kill fans who are interrupting his shows (which happens a couple of times throughout the movie).
To give you an idea, here’s a typical BJM show:
Because Taylor is the narrator, we only get to hear Newcombe’s story through the voice of his bitter rival who is happy to depict the fall of a brilliant man whose biggest downfall was his ego. Very rarely do we get to see or hear Newcombe talk one-on-one to the camera when he’s not in a frenzy, and the movie would be so much better if we got to see a calm Newcombe explain himself. Throughout the movie, the other BMJ bandmates give their own takes on Newcombe, and they all agree that 1) he’s an asshole who’s hard to work with 2) it’s cool that they get to play with such an amazing musician. Tambourine man and Jack White lookalike Joel Gion is usually the first to defend Newcombe’s erratic behavior, but even Gion has his limits when Newcombe’s increasingly violent drug addiction gets in the way of writing or recording new music.
The end of the movie plays out as if the Dandys are the victors and that BJM crashed and burned, but this is unfair because both bands are still active and, although the Dandys are more well known, I would put my money on BJM being the better band.
If there’s any question that “Dig!” is trying to ask, maybe it’s asking why certain bands make it while others don’t. Are the big bad record labels always the ones screwing up, or do bands really have more control over their fate? How true must you stick to your artistic vision at the risk of becoming impossible to work with? What does “success” actually mean in music?
My favorite scene is late in the film when a typical BJM onstage brawl results in Newcombe’s sitar breaking and him cursing out a fan by shouting “You fuckin’ broke my sitar, fucker.” It’s hard to take this line seriously, but there’s no irony in Newcombe’s voice when he threatens to kill the guy who broke his sitar at a 90s rock show. The movie is full of entertaining scenes like this, and, since this movie feels heavily skewed towards making Newcombe look like an asshole, you should watch “Dig!” without looking too deep into any message and just enjoy some great rock & roll drama.