Taking Digs: A Look Back at the Rock Doc that Promised a Revolution
This article was originally published in Paste magazine in December 2004
Ondi Timoner was determined to understand how artists maintain integrity in the face of commercial pressure. So the cum laude Yale graduate spent seven years documenting the careers of two promising Northwestern U.S. rock bands—The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. The resulting film, DIG!, follows the bands on their disparate paths, as the Dandies sign to Capitol Records, achieving mild stardom, and BJM remains independent, receiving critical acclaim while its success is marred by lead singer Anton Newcombe’s self-destructive tendencies. They begin their journey as friends mutually intent on destroying the music industry’s machinery. But after the Dandies record deal, frontman Courtney Taylor and Newcombe become bitter enemies, while continuing to inspire each other, creatively.
Looking back to the documentary’s beginnings, Timoner remembers, “The Brian Jonestown Massacre wasn’t catering to the industry, and it seemed every label was interested in them. I saw them perform at The Viper Room Showcase [in West Hollywood, Calif.,] for eight labels, and they were in a fistfight by the fifth song. The next day, a friend told me to meet The Dandy Warhols because Brian Jonestown and the Dandies were going to start a revolution together.”
So it’s no surprise when, in the film, Newcombe challenges, “I’m here to destroy this f—ed up system!” Even today, he remains steadfast about his original intentions for participating in Timoner’s project. “If you look at the body of our work,” he maintains, “go all of the way back to Spacegirl. It says, ‘We bring you a message from the kids of America, this business sucks.’ I think that speaks volumes about the fact we were against the grain from square one. I wanted to show how scummy and fake the music biz is.”
Perhaps the BJM frontman’s burning desire to tear down the industry led to his trying to decimate almost everything in his path, including Timoner’s film. It wasn’t long before he came to see the movie as just another cog in the machine.
Although both bands toured together in the early days, Timoner says the two frontmen became estranged just eight months after filming began. The fact that their relationship disintegrated shortly after the Dandies signed to Capitol suggests Newcombe no longer considered the band worthy of being in a movie about a system-bucking musical revolution.
So, as the film crew continued studying the Dandies’ relationship with Capitol, Newcombe became increasingly difficult to work with, giving frequent ultimatums. “Anton demanded that I was present at every moment I could be,” says Timoner. “If I wasn’t, he’d yell at me and get mad.”
Newcombe’s tantrums forced Timoner to modify her approach to the film. As a result, the Dandies only ended up occupying 30 percent of the running time. To balance the disproportionate coverage, Timoner assigned Taylor the role of film narrator.
“I tried to narrate it myself,” she explains. “My narration didn’t work, and omniscient narration didn’t work because it felt like the story was being told to you. It took people out of the bubble I had created. I attempted to create a completely insular world and you stay with those characters right ’til the end.”
But some might criticize the director for permitting Taylor to take advantage of his role, like when he boasts, “I didn’t have time to reflect much on Anton’s lack of interest in my new song because mega-celebrity fashion photographer David LaChapelle agreed to do our video. Capitol threw down $400,000 to make this happen.” As each strong-willed frontman grappled for prominence, a film originally about industry contaminating the purity of art was becoming a film about artists compromising each other’s artistic integrity.
With both bands separated, and with Newcombe interacting very little with the industry, Timoner now had the task of exploring why the revolution she was promised was painfully absent. The Dandies’ major-label deal was certainly a factor, but Newcombe’s apparent psychosis, violent outbursts and drug addiction would alter the film’s course even more dramatically.
In regard to Newcombe’s onscreen depiction, his band’s website counters, “The ‘Jerry Springer-esque’ vilification of [Newcombe’s] nature is an inappropriate, mis-contextualized, and exploitative use of the footage.” The site goes on to condemn the documentary in its currently edited form, and to offer an essay by Newcombe in which he voices his specific criticisms of the film.
Newcombe’s at-times-naïve statements on film (“We’re going to get the biggest record deal in history”) in addition to his decision to relocate the band to L.A.—only foothills away from the famed Capitol Records tower—are often perceived as failed attempts at using the industry. But Newcombe disagrees. “I don’t believe it is accurate to say, or imply, that I, or we, failed to play the game or blew anything. We have been productive. We have placed all of our music online for free. You would be surprised to know how many downloads we get.”
In the wake of DIG!, The Dandy Warhols have since relocated to EMI Records and Brian Jonestown Massacre started cutting a new album and touring the U.S. and Australia in 2004. So, if BJM follows in Taylor and Co.’s more commercially successful footsteps, would Newcombe credit DIG! for helping start the revolution? “I never wanted a tour bus like the Dandies,” he says. “It’s not my thing. I don’t want to be a rock star. I want to create music and play shows.”
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