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Sundance Film Review: DIG! XX

DIG! XX is the reconceptualized version of one of the most celebrated rock documentaries ever made, DIG!. It is the story of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, two bands from the late 90s who were both considered “Next Big Things” by record company A&R representatives and label heads. It is the tale of the friendship and rivalry of the two band’s leaders, the brilliant “mad genius” Anton Newcombe, and the much more amenable and socially acceptable Courtney Taylor-Taylor, as much as it is about the fight between artists and record labels. You can watch DIG! XX online until Sunday, along with other Sundance films, on the film festival’s website.

The film’s synopsis is this: “DIG! XX is the 20th anniversary extended edition of the rock documentary DIG!, which adds new narration by The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Joel Gion, features 40+ minutes of never-before-seen footage, and brings this epic tale to today.”

“DIG! XX looks at the collision of art and commerce through the star-crossed friendship and bitter rivalry of dueling rock bands — The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Through their loves and obsessions, gigs, arrests, and death threats, uppers and downers, and ultimately, their chance at a piece of the profit-driven music business, they stage a self-proclaimed revolution in the music industry.”

Ondi Timoner, director, camera operator, musician wrangler, and editor of DIG! and David Timoner, camera operator, interviewer, and editor of DIG! XX definitely deserve so much credit for spending seven years filming the documentary when the two bands were not yet as successful as they would eventually turn out to be.  The film’s images, shot on several different formats, have been gloriously upscaled, and the sound mix and quality have been enormously improved.

The Timoners filmed on faith and with the cinematic instinct that they had chosen worthy subjects. They would be rewarded beyond belief by that faith as the film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance 2004. They should be commended for listening to that same instinct when it came time to film. When I interviewed Ondi, she said, “So, a lot of the magic of Dig! is just kind of knowing when to show up.” The proof is in the film.

The screening of DIG! XX at Sundance was prefaced by a short video from fan and musician Dave Grohl of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters, who named DIG! as his favorite rock documentary and thinks just as highly of DIG! XX. Ondi has named several rock and pop legends who are fans of the film, but Grohl has gone on the record at the festival. He also said that the film shows you what it is really like to be in a band. 

One thing that I would recommend to you as a viewer of the film, and I definitely recommend that everyone watch DIG! XX, a new and even better film, is to view it from the perspective of what is currently going on in our society regarding A.I. Artists, musicians, actors, fine artists, and writers are feeling the existential threat of A.I. since many people have decided that it is a way to make art and consume art without having to deal with those pesky artists. Or pay them.

People love art but seem to hate, fear, and misunderstand artists. I believe that stems from the fear that the average consumer feels when faced with the concept of the creative urge. Many want fame and approval, but putting themselves on the line in front of a crowd and exposing their emotions and vulnerabilities is something they are terrified of.

They can’t understand the creative process, and it frightens them. It also angers them that these sometimes arrogant and strange musicians and other creatives can do it. It stirs envy that curdles into a hatred of the creators, and I think this is essentially why corporations and executives, depressed about their lack of creative ability, seek to take advantage of artists and take the majority of the profit from art that is commercially available. They enjoy swindling artists that they feel inferior to because it gives the crime that extra zest. Make no mistake: the music industry has been stealing from artists for decades.

Anton Newcombe is a highly intelligent musical savant, polymath, multi-instrumentalist, musician, band leader, producer, and fine artist who has primarily been misunderstood because of his anger and dark humor. When I interviewed him for The Recording Academy, I found out how much he loves creating music and how his live shows have actually morphed into events where he puts so much energy into creating a mystical experience. 

Newcombe has also spent many years and some time in the documentary telling anyone who will listen that the music industry is a “Mafia.” If you think of some of his “antics” as being similar to the testing that Jim Morrison used to be known for, he might be slightly easier for you to understand, but remember that to him, this is a deadly serious fight for his life. Making music and art is everything to him; when he feels that his creative autonomy and survival are being threatened, he will react badly. No one else is quite like him, even though his importance in music has been likened to that of Bob Dylan by no less than Anthony Bourdain. He is one of the most extraordinary musical talents of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries.

When you watch DIG! XX, an audience’s natural tendency is to side with the group that seems more normal and happy, The Dandy Warhols, and deride the seemingly more dangerous band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre – even though rock and roll are supposed to be dangerous. When you watch both bands snort coke, the audience seems to give the Dandies a pass and only consider BJM as the dangerous druggies. 

They’re both doing the same drugs. 

One of the advantages of DIG! XX over the original is that the Timoners added the narration of Joel Gion, The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s percussionist and frontman. The first DIG! only had the somewhat snide observations of Courtney Taylor-Taylor, where he would talk about how well-adjusted and successful his band was and what a bunch of screw-ups BJM supposedly was. Occasionally, he would admit that BJM was a better band and that Anton was more of a visionary than he, but his version of the events colored the audience’s perception in a very real way. That’s called P.R. One of the things that Taylor-Taylor and the Dandies excel at is projecting an image of success and normality. Gion’s witty ripostes rip back some of the narrative control of the film and are highly entertaining and enlightening. 

The other advantage that Ondi and David Timoner gave to this update is that they could use the vast archive of footage sitting in Ondi’s garage and add scenes that give more context to the events. This is integral to this new version of the film because it shines a light on the band members’ personal motivations and, sometimes, changes scenes and the course of the film with new information. Film is a visual medium, and while voiceover and telling the audience what is happening is important, showing the audience what happened is even more crucial to storytelling.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

For example, in one fight that BJM had on tour in Chicago, you can see Anton peacefully napping while the others argue. Does that mean that Anton is totally innocent? No, but it does show that not all of the angry arguments involved him. DIG! XX also shows his more sensitive, gentle, and hugely magnetic side that attracts so many people. Along with the tragic sequence about his parents and their emotional neglect of Anton, it goes a long way toward showing where his anger comes from, but also why people really want to be in his orbit. 

Another is that the Timoners were also able to add newer footage almost up to the current day that shows that far from being a failure, Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre had not only survived but were thriving while touring the world. One thing that happens at screenings of DIG! is that people assume that the ending means the end of BJM, which is far from the truth. 

It is also important to remember that musicians, as more free-thinking and emotional people, have had a tendency to engage in substances and violence. Also, when one is drinking or doing drugs, there is a pronounced tendency to behave very badly. As Courtney Taylor-Taylor observes, “When you have a pack of junkies on the road, not eating, not sleeping and drinking. A lot. Will some of them get grumpy and start fighting? No, probably not.” 

A fairly recent example of a musician engaging in violence in public is Cardi B reacting to having water thrown at her onstage and hurling her mic back at the person in the crowd. 

Joel Gion’s new narration and additional footage give some perspective to the infamous Viper Room fight, in particular, which is needed. While violence is not cool, it does put the fights in perspective. It’s not just random violence from a terrible person.

Ultimately, the crowning success of DIG! XX is the willingness of the filmmakers, Ondi and David Timoner, to go back and add so much that it creates a much more vivid and accurate portrait of the events in the two bands’ lives. It is the best and most truthful rock documentary ever made because it takes such an unflinching and honest look at what musicians do, how they create, and what it is really like to deal with the music industry, which is nothing but a trap.

The filmmaker’s choice to show the unvarnished words and actions of Newcombe, in particular, are very instructive to musicians in the audience. It is a cautionary tale, but not against sticking up for yourself as Newcombe insists on doing, in his own darkly charismatic way, but against believing what record companies are telling you and conforming to rules that only apply to some. 

The new edition gives the audience even more of an inkling of what Newcombe is actually saying about music industry exploitation and a view of Taylor-Taylor’s lament, “If I was just a little bit smarter.” There is also a revelation about Taylor-Taylor that takes some of the shiny halo off his head, which is only fair.  During the Q&A at Sundance, Dandy Zia McCabe also admitted that the inner workings of The Dandies were far from what was advertised as “the most well-adjusted band in the world.”

It gives the observant viewer the message that the system is exploitative and that unless you chart your own course, as difficult as that may be, you will lose. But concurrently, it tells you that you will pay a price for choosing your own path. 

DIG! XX is magnificent and fiery, an artistic telling of a story that is frequently misunderstood because of our society’s tendency to put a premium on obedience rather than free will, even in art. Highly entertaining and shocking, it delves into the artistic soul and the insecurities that artists give to themselves and, inadvertently, to the audience.

DIG! XX is truly a new film that gives the audience the opportunity to understand everyone in the two bands better and discover why they did what they did—the beauty of music up against the greed and despair of humanity’s worst urges. It also gives people a humanistic portrait of how difficult it is to be an artist in a culture that only values artistic success in the form of wealth and fame. 

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