Watch the Tunes: Artifact

On October 21, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Artifact, which is streaming over on Netflix.

The history of well known actors moonlighting as professional musicians is spotty, at best. The most prominent examples of this odd genre subcategory are Kevin Bacon’s sibling duo the Bacon Brothers, Russell Crowe’s seemingly inappropriately named 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, and whatever you wanna call Bruce Willis’s late ‘80s dabblings in motor city soul. Of that bunch, you get the sense none exist to be much more than a pressure valve for the famous person at their center, something for them to fuck around with during down time between movies. “Don’t take us tooooo seriously,” they seem to cry out.

Not so with 30 Seconds To Mars, the band that former My So Called Life heartthrob Jared Leto has been fronting, along with his brother Shannon Leto on drums, for damn near fifteen years now. With albums that have gone gold and platinum in America and abroad and half a dozen massive globe-trotting tours, these guys stand head and shoulder over any other half-baked Hollywood “vanity project.” Even after all that legitimate success I still have a hard time taking them seriously, though, which is why I went into their 2012 documentary, Artifact, with as open a heart and mind as I could manage.

While Artifact primarily functions as a behind the scenes “making of” for the group’s third album, 2009’s This Is War, it also attempts to double as a case study in how the music industry as a whole systematically screws artists over. The reason for this extra layer is that for the whole time that they are recording the album, the band is in the process of being sued to the tune of thirty million dollars(!) by their record label, EMI. It turns out that after their second album sold 3.5 million copies worldwide, they made an effort to get signed by some other label despite still owing EMI three records. I’m no legal scholar, but it seems like that was perhaps an inadvisable move on their part and maybe they earned all the stress they brought on themselves, but what do I know. They really climb up on that cross every chance they can and commit to this narrative. Scattered throughout are interviews with everyone from musicians (Chester Bennington, Brandon Boyd, and Amanda Palmer, to name just a few), industry veterans, and even a neuroscientist who is brought on board to make the case that music is "...woven into the fabric of our lives" for some reason.

The lawsuit, bubbling in the background throughout, does add some tension to what would otherwise be a fairly boring album recording process, infusing the proceedings with enough energy to get you to the end credits. Despite being in debt to their label and with that legal action looming, they somehow scrounge the cash to build their own studio and hire mega-producer Flood to man the boards for this outing, but that’s where that layer of narrative sort of ends. There’s no real dive into the craft of recording an album on display here, other than lots of flubbed takes and vague instrumental noodling. Even the title of the album, This Is War, is a reference to the ongoing litigation, so even the music itself is just background to this arguably self-imposed professional martyrdom. There are twelve tracks listed on the album, so stuff happened in that studio, but it’s just not really too present in this film.

Because I am a professional, I took note of the director of the film, a certain “Bartholomew Cubbins,” intending to follow up on other films he had directed. It turns out that Cubbins and Jared Leto are... dun dun DUN... one and the same! There’s a reason why bands hire other folks to make films about themselves, and other than just whatever identifiable style they might bring, a they are also able to separate themselves from the group and keep the thing from crawling too far up its own ass, which humorously happens here way more often than not. The naked Leto ego on display here is the film’s unintentional saving grace. Here’s the Artifact drinking game: Someone wears a scarf, take a sip. A title card features a stupid quote, drink. Unnecessary shot of the LA skyline at sunset, drink. Jared Leto is sorta recognized on the street by a fan, finish your beer. There’s a moment towards the end of the movie where Jared and Shannon participate in some sort of stress-reducing / positivity-provoking thing where they scream as they throw rocks off a Hollywood ridgeline that literally could have been ripped from Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

The tension between art and commerce is fascinating to me, and I would love to see a documentary about all the times that artists were screwed over by their record labels. Prince writing “Slave” on his face, Neil Young getting sued for making purposefully unmarketable music, John Fogerty being accused of plagiarizing himself... music history is littered with viable examples of studios screwing with their meal tickets. With Artifact, though, the group comes off as petulant more than anything so it’s hard to take their situation seriously. Ultimately the group resign with EMI which ends up making this less of a lawsuit, per se, and more of a contract renegotiation in way. While 30 Seconds to Mars, as a band, certainly transcend the “vanity project” label, this film never quite breaks free from the orbit of Jared Leto’s self-seriousness, which is entertaining enough in and of itself to recommend it.

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Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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