For seven years, starting in 1996, filmmaker Ondi Timoner documented the ups (and, mostly, downs) of two aspiring retro-alt-rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The bands were connected by a similar neo-’60s aesthetic and the admiration that Warhols singer-songwriter Courtney Taylor had for his Jonestown counterpart Anton Newcombe. Taylor, who narrates the film, saw Newcombe as a genius in the raw; undisciplined and self-destructive but a brilliant and natural musician, somebody less interested in having a career than just making music.
The question of whether or not Newcombe and his band were as impressive as Taylor claims isn’t answered by the film, since most of the performance footage quickly climaxes with Newcombe throwing fits, yelling at both audience and band members and stalking off stage. Newcombe is, according to one of the many talking heads, his own worst enemy and “torn between the notions of success and credibility” — though the problem seems to lay deeper than just anxiety about losing his rebel cred. The Warhols were apparently arty kids from good backgrounds, which made them somewhat more amenable to the inevitable music industry compromises that arise on the road to marketability. The Jonestown boys, however, come across as more genuine misfits, with Newcombe the head neurotic, ready to go down in flames before he lets anyone screw with his music.
Shot in funky video with home-movie abandon and sprinkled with performance footage, Dig! is like a more-real version of one of those VH1 “Behind The Scenes” episodes, but with no happy or even hopeful ending. The appeal of Timoner’s film is similar to what the appeal of a Jonestown concert must have been: Your attention is held because you’re waiting to see what kind of asshole stunt Newcombe is going to pull off next. It’s all a tempest in a teapot, a detailed look at the struggles of two bands that never really mattered that much; but there’s enough emotional sturm und drang that you may become convinced that Newcombe really is a tortured genius, worthy of Taylor’s pitying respect and perhaps yours.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8-9, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 10, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.