Battle of the Loser Bands

How to fail at alternative rock: DiG!

Ondi Timoner’s new film DiG! (Palm Pictures) sets out to document the rising careers of two West Coast alternative rock bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. Things go consistently, relentlessly wrong, and instead of an inspiring making-of-the-band film, Timoner gives us a chronicle of misguided aspirations and failure. The movie has become a kind of highway-safety film for the rock community—bootleg copies were said to be a precious commodity on tour buses this summer.

DiG! is probably the best portrait we’ll get of the post-Nirvana epoch, when record companies championed exactly the kind of underground bands they had so studiously avoided in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, Timoner has found two bands without critical acclaim or commercial success. It’s their anonymity that makes DiG! so compelling. The Massacre’s Anton Newcombe and the Warhols’ Courtney Taylor are Rock Stars Without Portfolio, charismatic and manipulative lead singers in search of an audience that will justify their personalities.

Newcombe and Taylor are obsessed with their own credibility. They assume they’ve got it and neither wants to blow it by “selling out.” Both embrace the pretenses of the no-longer-indie underground rock scene in the ‘90s, the hustle of a generation determined to get its share of a previously unimaginable windfall.

For his part, Newcombe has studied the contradictions of Brian Jones. As founder and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, Jones almost single-handedly invented the myth of credibility. He despaired when the Stones’ growing popularity was fueled by the emerging partnership between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; the band’s success made him surly and withdrawn, and he was kicked out shortly before his death in 1969. Newcombe, who called his band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, counts on the industry types getting his cheeky in-joke. As Sire Records’ Seymour Stein reportedly put it, “With a name like that, you can’t go wrong.”

Oh, but they can, Seymour. Offered a million-dollar record deal if his band could play a showcase for industry executives at Los Angeles’ Viper Room, Newcombe alienates attendees when he starts the show, declaiming, “That’s why we’re going to get the biggest deal in history. Because we’re smart.” So smart, in fact, that he melts down and fires his band onstage before the evening ends with a mass fistfight in the club—the first of at least a dozen moments that rival anything in This IsSpinal Tap.

Newcombe seems energized by the disaster. He stares wild-eyed into the camera and proclaims, “I am not for sale. Nobody says that. I am f—ing Love, do you understand what I’m saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away.”

The Dandy Warhols face a more lucrative kind of fiasco. The band signs to Capitol Records and happily gives itself over to the label’s star-making machinery. But the machinery breaks down, and the band produces an expensive video (which they hate) for their not-quite-hit single “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth.” Taylor fights with the record company, all the while proclaiming his genius: “I sneeze and hits come out.”

With each band facing a different kind of meltdown, it’s almost inevitable that they will attempt to feud with one another. The Brian Jonestown Massacre tries to start a Blur/Oasis-style skirmish with the Dandy Warhols by recording a single called “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth.” Sadly, neither band is popular enough for the fight to matter.

Taylor’s obsession with Newcombe is more interesting. At the beginning of the film, Taylor breathlessly proclaims of the BJM, “No label will touch them. They are so crazy. They never eat. All I’ve seen them do is drink liquor and snort drugs.” It’s clear that for Taylor, Newcombe exemplifies credibility. In the film’s most astonishing moment, Taylor leads the Dandy Warhols and a photographer to a trashed Brian Jonestown house for an unannounced photo shoot. The BJM stand around helplessly, complaining as Taylor effortlessly steals their life as a backdrop for a magazine spread. It’s exactly the sort of soul-stealing made famous by Andy Warhol.

Neither band is without talent, exactly. Newcombe plunders his encyclopedic knowledge of ‘60s rock to create a pastiche that might be appealing if his band could find a way to actually play his songs. Taylor’s band makes competent if uninspiring alternative rock, spiced up with novelty singles like “Junkie” and “Bohemian Like You.” And it’s those singles that provide DiG! with its only fleeing moments of hope. Even though they’ve never really cracked it in America, the Dandy Warhols settle into a comfortable, midlevel career overseas. Newcombe, meanwhile, destroys his band to save his own credibility.

Newcombe may not realize how prophetic his band’s name turned out to be, because he’s repeatedly sacrificed his career to an indefinable ideal of cool. It’s as if Brian Jones himself is dispensing the Kool-Aid and Newcombe is first in line to take a drink.

After we’re numb from Newcombe’s long, slow descent, we finally get a small moment of emotional redemption. The Dandy Warhols headline England’s Reading Festival and 60,000 kids wildly sing along to “Bohemian Like You.” It may not be a great song—or one you’ll remember three minutes after you leave the theater—but it’s a powerful reminder of just what music is for, and it explodes all of the navel-gazing and infighting in one precious moment of redemption.

Brian Jones would not find it cool.