To set the record straight, when I went to see Dig! I was not a fan of the Dandy Warhols and I’d never heard of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, so I had no vested interest in the two bands involved, and was only mildly interested in the premise. (I’d heard of the Dandys because of that Vodaphone ad, but that was the extent of it.) Well, colour me stunned because I was riveted, fascinated, appalled and amused, but never, ever bored.
Dig! is ostensibly the story of two up-and-coming west coast indie bands, filmed on a shoestring over seven years, starting in 1996. It documents the rise and rise of the Dandy Warhols, led by the razor cheekboned, charismatic, if stupidly named, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, and the contrasting disintegration of The Brian Jonestown Massacre under the maniacal auspices of lead singer, producer, and player of 80 instruments, Anton Newcombe. Taylor and Newcombe are initially friends, united in their desire not to play the record company game, with Taylor looking up to Newcombe as a musician. The film talks a great deal about Newcombe’s musical genius, and at first it seems that the BJM are headed for meteoric success, while the Dandys are destined, despite signing to Capitol, for the bargain bin in Virgin. We see the bands hanging out, playing small gigs (keyboard player McCabe topless, as was her wont), doing drugs and generally having a good time. A&R people talk up Newcombe, and the BJM are invited to LA for an industry showcase.
It’s an unmitigated disaster.
The band members are hammered, drinking vodka as Newcombe attempts to introduce another record. When someone plays a wrong note, Newcombe berates them publicly; screaming turns into a physical fight and half the band walks off stage. And so it continues. Despite his avowed purism, it becomes obvious that Taylor and the other Dandys, while maintaining their indie image, are actually willing to work with their record company; their ambitions are mainstream, they want to make money and have fun. In this they are bolstered by a weird stroke of luck – Vodaphone uses Bohemian Like You on a series of ads that go out across Europe and the Dandys join the ranks of American bands beloved in Europe but pretty much ignored at home – The Strokes, Kings of Leon, Scissor Sisters to name but a few. Ecstatically headlining the Reading Festival, they are at the top of their game.
In the meantime, the BJM finance their own tour, dragging themselves across America in a minivan. The tensions between band members, especially guitarist Matt Hollywood, and Newcombe, grow. They are arrested for possession of cannabis in Georgia – this is directly contrasted with the Dandys being let off with a fine for the same offense in, of all places, France – fire their manager, and basically go into meltdown. Newcombe and a number of the others have been taking smack, drinking too much and not eating, and even when they manage to get on stage perform long, self-indulgent sets to empty rooms. Newcombe’s behaviour, at first just a kind of melodramatic naughtiness, is increasingly violent – and possibly inherited from his schizophrenic, alcoholic father who, the film tells us, killed himself on his son’s 30th birthday.
The passive-aggressive rivalry between the two bands is constantly underlined; Timoner exhaustively chronicling the trials and tribulations of both bands. Newcombe trying to gatecrash a Dandys’ showcase; Newcombe handing out free copies of his single “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth” (a riposte to the Dandys’ “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth”, which mocked Newcombe’s pretensions); the Dandys sneering at the BJM’s filthy house, but still happy to use it as the backdrop for a photoshoot, lending them an air of cool; the telling comparisons to the Stones/Beatles, Oasis/Blur rivalries; Newcombe kicking a member of the audience in the face and being arrested for assault. One of the most memorable (and funny) sequences shows Newcombe, in an Elvis style outfit, repeatedly falling over on rollerblades as he tries to get into a gig.
The film, narrated by Taylor (an understandable decision, lending as it does authority and intimacy simultaneously), does tend to present things from the Dandys’ point of view. And to an extent that slightly smug point of view is that a (relatively) nice middle-class aspirational hard working but slightly less talented band will do better than a bunch of drug abusing boys from broken homes, genius or no genius. It doesn’t really deal with the question of why some bands implode (apart from the obvious – Ghandi would want to kill Newcombe after touring with him.), though we get lots of industry types telling us just how important Newcombe is musically. But it really doesn’t matter that much. As a look at the dark underbelly of the record industry, and a self-defeating ego, it’s fascinating stuff, and should be required viewing for anyone who has ever thought about joining a band.
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