DIG! written, produced and directed by Ondi Timoner. An Interloper Films production. A Films We Like presentation. 105 minutes. Opens Friday (October 8) at the Bloor Cinema and Square One, Mississauga. 115 minutes. For times, see Movies, page 100, and Indie & Rep Film, page 118. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If success in the music business were based solely on talent, Charles Gayle might be selling platinum while Hilary Duff was the one living in a cardboard box. Of course, in the real world there's little correlation between chops and charts, which is why many genuinely gifted musicians fail where others succeed.
For a brief moment in the mid-90s right after the grunge bubble burst, the Brian Jonestown Massacre seemed as likely as any group to pick up where Nirvana left off. Besides having the right look and oozing rock 'n' roll attitude, the Massacre were blessed with a mad song-scientist frontman in Anton Newcombe, for whom creating classically catchy tunes seemed to be a natural bodily function.
They seemed to have everything going their way, which is why the rocumentary Dig!, Ondi Timoner's microscopic study of their downward spiral, makes for such compelling viewing, as hilarious as it is befuddling.
"I first heard the Brian Jonestown Massacre at a friend's house and thought they were this amazing band from the 60s I'd somehow missed," Grammy-nominated Yale grad Timoner explains from Los Angeles. "But someone said they were alive and well and playing in San Francisco, so that's where I went.
"When I arrived, they were playing a show on Anton's birthday, but they showed up late and got thrown off the bill. Visibly upset, Anton said, 'Let's have a revolution right here' and began playing in the doorway.
"I could see that these were amazing characters, and I started filming from moment one. That's actually the footage that opens Dig!"
For the next seven years, Timoner, her brother David and cinematographer Vasco Nunes filmed Newcombe and cohorts up close in rank-smelling vans, dive bars and decrepit crash pads, capturing both the thrilling moments of creation and the dope-addled fist fights while using the simultaneous progress of their arch rivals, the Dandy Warhols, as ready-made contrast and insightful commentary.
"Once I started into the film, I couldn't pull out of it. I wanted to document life with these bands so thoroughly that I could actually bring people along for the trip and share my experience with everyone.
"The whole story is so strange, much more bizarre than anything I could've written myself, which is why I had to stick with it for so long even though the human being in me wanted to give it up.
"I mean, beyond all that went into shooting it (including getting arrested with Anton and the band), editing down more than 1,500 hours of raw footage into the final cut was a nightmare. I've got enough stuff for a 32-episode reality television series."
Dig! ultimately succeeds because Timoner refuses to settle for a cheap VH1 Behind The Music rags-to-riches-to-rags version of the Brian Jonestown Massacre story.
Instead, she ambitiously attempts to present the confrontationally arrogant and thoroughly unpleasant Newcombe as a somewhat sympathetic figure while addressing the fundamental art-vs-commerce conundrum.
"When I screened my original cuts of the film, people didn't seem to like Anton enough to stick with the film for an hour and 45 minutes. I had to go back and take out some of the darker moments and build up the section involving his mother and father.
"Anton is this rebel type who wants to play the game on his own terms, without any awareness of the ramifications of his behaviour. To this day I still don't know if he gets it. Self-awareness is not one of his strongest traits."