his year’s documentary prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, Dig! is
no ordinary look behind the music. It’s an intertwined tale of two bands — the
Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The Dandys are on an upwards
trajectory, while the BJM continually self implodes, no thanks to the megalomaniacal
antics of its leader, Anton Newcombe.
You think you know the true Hollywood travails of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but there’s something more exploratory and revealing in this movie than merely the the ups and downs of two mismatched bands. Unlike most music documentaries, Dig! is no valentine from a fan, but a thorough examination of what happens when art mixes with commerce.
Picture the tension from Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster documentary,
but with hipster cred and sitars — and without the benefit of a trained
psychologist to stop the fighting. Plenty of us might behave dismissively or
seethe internally watching a friend continually showered with luck and success — but
who actually stoops to death threats? BJM events are attended by fans eager to
not only hear the music, but to see who will throw the first punch.
The irony is that everyone agrees that the less successful Brian Jonestown Massacre is the superior band, including the film’s narrator and Dandy leader, Courtney Taylor, who has served as both friend and rival to Newcombe. Director Ondi Timoner may no longer be on speaking terms with Newcombe, but she deserves credit for making him the most sympathetic of assholes.
Timoner followed the two bands for seven years, watched almost
fifty BJM members come and go, and recorded over 1500 hours of footage. The film
is astonishing not only due to what she was able to capture on film (from a fancy
David LaChappelle video shoot for the emerging Dandys to an interview with Newcombe’s
suicidal father) but what she also left out. Here she talks about what she saw — and
had to sacrifice in the edit. — Lily Oei
How did you fall in with this crowd?
I met them originally through a project I was working on, The Cut, about ten bands trying to get record deals and what happens when art and industry meet. I had heard of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and thought they were some great band I missed in the 60s. A mutual friend said they were alive and well, up in San Francisco and in fact every label was interested in them. I thought they were perfect for what I was doing — looking at bands on the verge of getting signed.
When did you realize what you had?
Two weeks later, Anton brought his band to play the Viper Room. He had blown
all their money on sitars, so they were very upset. They had that huge fight
in my backyard, where Matt was like “You burn in hell for pretending to be
god and not being able to back that up.” Anton got on the phone with the
Viper Room, and said, “Cancel my guest list. The industry’s mafia, no one
is getting in for free.” He was trying to make back the money so they could
afford gas to get home. The tension continued in the evening and they ended
up in a
fist fight pile up at the Viper Room in front of eight labels.
And the Dandys?
The day after, Anton mentioned the Dandys — they were going to have a revolution together. I was inclined to believe him at this point. I figured if anyone was going to have a revolution, it was Anton. So I went up to Portland to meet them. They were rock stars before anyone called them rock stars. They had this cool about them in this insulated little town, and they had their own thing going.
They had already been signed?
They had just signed with Capitol, they actually seemed like they were going
to be able to do it on some level. They were out for a good time, and they were
going to be famous. Everything I was looking for in these ten bands, I found
So what happened between the two bands?
I’d bring up the fact that Anton was coming up to have a revolution and they were like, “What are you talking about?” Anton was thinking he’d go and make split singles with them and they were like “Uh … okay.” He showed up and the relationship went south shortly there after. They really didn’t take him in and it hurt his feelings. But he is, to this day, among their greatest inspirations. They love him, love the Brian Jonestown Massacre as a concept, but don’t like to spend too much close contact time with them because they live more of a stable life.
To put it mildly. In the film, there’s that scene at the CMJ festival…
Yes, they had to get a restraining order against him.
Were the bands more comfortable with you because you’d directed music videos?
They knew I was dedicated to have been there for so long and finance it
myself. They could see we were there for the right reasons — that’s
why we got so much access. They knew us so well, we were part of it. When
they got stuck in Chicago, we got stuck in Chicago.
And when Anton was arrested…
I was arrested too. It was that kind of thing — we were sharing each others’ lives. It wasn’t me standing there holding the camera. I got involved. To some extent, I always had to remind myself that I was making a movie: I shouldn’t finance Anton’s next record. Or arrange for it to be financed. I shouldn’t affect the action — even though I really want to see him make a record.
Do you think having cameras around had any impact?
I’ve heard them say they completely forgot the camera was there. I used a lot of spy camera stuff, didn’t want to put lights in their faces.
You shot 1500 hours of footage — what didn’t make it in?
I ended up cutting out some incredible scenes of interband strife, like a huge fight the Brian Jonestown Massacre had in Atlanta. There was another scene where Anton puts the Dandy manager in a headlock. There were also awesome, aspiring shows that we didn’t have time for — this will all be DVD stuff. Originally, with the five-hour cut, I said, “This will be the Shoah of rock.” And everyone said, “No Ondi, you really have to cut it down.”
Anton seems to be someone totally ruled by impulse. For instance, he kicks an audience member in the head the night his son is born…
A week before that, he socked his guitar player in the head with a sock full of rocks and metal in St. Louis and left him for dead. He was definitely, at that period, going through one of his episodes — it’s a cyclical thing. He was extremely off-kilter at this point, and hearing about the birth of his son didn’t help matters, with regard to the anxiety he was feeling.
How comfortable is everyone with this portrayal?
Everybody loves the film except Anton. Even his ex-girlfriends, people that care about him, love how he was portrayed in the film. But I think I popped Anton’s narcissistic bubble. He didn’t have any idea of how he acted. He also thinks I didn’t show that much of the music. But I was never doing a fan documentary.
Courtney comes off as a lesser musician, but a better tactician.
He readily admits it. He’s totally envious of Anton because he (Courtney) can
write beautiful music at the drop of a hat, but has trouble with the lyrics and
Anton seems to do it so effortlessly. I think that’s what makes Courtney so likable:
his humility in the face of Anton.
What’s your relationship with Anton these days?
We’re not on speaking terms right now. He remembers things differently than how they happened. It’d be hard for me to watch seven years of my life.
What’s the status of Anton’s and Courtney’s relationship today?
At first it was non-existent. Anton claimed he ripped off songs and gave out his personal email. Then Anton saw the way Courtney talked about him in the film and now they’re talking again. So I’ve actually helped patch up a relationship.
Does Anton have fear of success? He’s so self destructive — when he’s on the verge of something he brings it down.
I have my own theories, but I tried to keep them out of the film. I think the
reason why this has resonated is because the audience can see part of themselves
in their own journey as people, whether they’re artists, business people
or writers. There are times when you have to decide to make a compromise
or not. A lot of people face that head-on watching the film. The thing
with Anton is that he is so human, he’s inhumane.
I’m thinking about
the Metallica movie. Could therapy help Anton?
I think he would never let it happen. People would try to get him help, more traditional ways of medicating himself and he refused. He feels if he lives anywhere for too long, or loves anyone for too long, he feels like he’s going to lose something. Anton cultivates his edge.
The Dandys came from stable families — to what extent do you think that influenced the steadiness of their relationships with each other?
Courtney said the film was about being nice or being mean. It’s much better to have a good time and be nice with the people working with you. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own demons and that his band hasn’t had problems. Success makes things easier. They’ve have comforts that the Brian Jonestown Massacre don’t have. n°
Dig! opens Oct. 1.