Of the many rock documentaries released recently, “Dig!” is the best–an electrifying and poignant double biography of two west coast bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, as they struggle for success. The picture, directed by Ondi Timoner and narrated by Courtney Taylor (lead singer and songwriter of the Warhols), is like a Cain-and-Abel story of the music scene, an “East of Eden” tale of good brother-bad brother that ends in triumph for one group and disaster for the other, with the latter’s collapse caused by the egocentric self-destructiveness of Anton Newcombe, the guy–apparently a difficult genius of sorts–who created the band.
The tale begins at a point when the still-obscure bands are friendly and mutually supportive. The Portland-based Warhols and the San Francisco-based Massacre both cultivate an eclectic retro sound, but the latter, centered on the explosive Newcombe, is clearly the senior partner, as it were, having attained at least a local cult celebrity not only for its music but the players’ raucous, everything-be-damned lifestyle and contemptuous attitude, which contrasts markedly with the more pragmatic, professional stance of Taylor and his group. A wedge occurs between the two, though, when the members of BJM show up in Oregon expecting to share DW’s digs and facilities. Before long Newcombe has widened the split into a virtual feud that poisons the Warhols’ relationship with their rivals even as they continue to admire their talent. But the eccentric fellow also creates rifts within his own band, frequently abusing or dismissing players and undermining the group’s chances of commercial success by deliberately sabotaging gigs where record officials have come to observe them. By contrast the Warhols, though less quantitatively productive and perhaps less creative as well, are signed by Capitol, and while mainstream success eludes them in the States, they become popular in Europe, enjoying enthusiastic concert dates in England and elsewhere. Their popularity appears to infuriate Newcombe even more, and he becomes a virtual stalker, a provocateur aiming, it seems, to exacerbate the feud he himself began, perhaps in hopes of reviving BHM’s fortunes. But ultimately his excesses not only doom the band’s hope of commercial success, but lead to its dissolution, and when Newcombe is last seen, it’s doing solo gigs in minor venues, berating his audiences, and stalking off stage in a rage.
Timorer makes imaginative use of various sources–concert footage, music videos, behind-the-scenes material, interviews with band members, record company executives and reporters–to paint a breathless portrait of the two group’s different journeys–the one to popular acceptance and the other to disbandment, and Taylor narrates with enthusiasm and empathy for Newcombe, continuing to express admiration for his talent even while he shows a mixture of envy and dismay over his outrageous conduct. But while Taylor’s is the voice we hear and the Warhols the band that makes it, the real stars here are the members of the Brian Jones Massacre, and especially the impossible Newcombe, whose background is crisply sketched (there are snippets of remembrance from his mother, who tells us how troublesome the boy was, and from his mentally-disturbed, alcoholic father, who–we’re informed, killed himself on his son’s next birthday) and antics are catalogued. By the close one may like Taylor and the Dandy Warhols and be happy for their success–and indeed, what we hear of their music is quite enjoyable (if there’s a flaw here, it’s that there are few extended musical sequences where we get to hear what all the fuss is about)–but it’s Newcombe and his unhappy colleagues that we’re likely to remember. He emerges as a tragic figure of sorts, artistically brilliant on the one hand but floridly self-destructive on the other. In the final shots he looks something like Elvis in his later Vegas days, and there isn’t a much sadder sight than that.
“Dig!” thus succeeds on two levels. It captures the wild, up-and-down swings of the rock music business expertly, while in Newcombe it offers a poignant, disturbing portrait of a talented but tortured man. It’s that double character of the film achievement, as well as the double nature of its group biography, that make it more than an ordinary rock documentary. It becomes a sort of rock equivalent of “Hoop Dreams,” substituting music for basketball, and though it’s neither as long nor quite as stunning, it’s still pretty powerful, emotionally exhilarating stuff.