Fearless Freaks: The Wondrously Improbable Story of the Flaming Lips

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Let me be direct: I’m a fan of the Flaming Lips, though not a rabid one. I’ve just spent four days revisiting Fearless Freaks, Bradley Beesley’s documentary which world-premiered last March at the South By Southwest conference. I’ve watched it straight through, I’ve paused, rewound, fast-forwarded and slow-mo’ed. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I mean no hyperbole when I say that Fearless Freaks may be, in its way, the best music documentary ever made.

Some great rock films capture an event or a zeitgeist — Woodstock, Gimme Shelter — and some function as a sort of visual adjunct to a band’s music: Think The Last Waltz or I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. But I’m hard pressed to cite a film that captures the history and the personality of a band more honestly, or more movingly, than Fearless Freaks.

Freaks is the fruit of 14 years of connection between band and director. Beesley was the “art-school neighbor” of Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, and worked on several of the band’s videos. His footage is extensive and far-ranging, augmented by home movies (sometimes from the band members’ families), chronicling practice and recording sessions for nearly every Lips album. This closeness could have made the finished product feel chummy or sycophantic. It doesn’t.

“I trust Brad,” says multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, and there can be no question that the band opens to Beesley in ways even the most honestly approached short-term project could never have achieved, and few band profiles even attempt.

Scene follows startling scene: There are interactions between Coyne and his relatives so intimate that you feel like a voyeur. There’s a “family jam” session that speaks volumes about how much it means to grow up with music in a smallish city, as the Lips did in Oklahoma City. There’s an extended interview with one-time addict Drozd, as he prepares to shoot heroin. The scene ranks as one of the most offhandedly terrifying comments about the connection between art and drug use ever put on film.

But most of all there’s the music, and the guys who made it. And on that level, Fearless Freaks is a genuine triumph, far less a boilerplate “band profile” than a fully developed narrative about how a handful of weirdos from Oklahoma drew the map for American indie rock, without snobbery, pretension or a labored sense of gravitas. Freaks is a forceful, heartbreaking, glorious thing, and a remarkable movie on every level.

 

Showing at 9 p.m., Friday, May 27, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).0

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