Imagine for a moment, that a film crew appeared ready to capture Oasis and Blur as they recorded their first couple albums. That the film crew would be given full access to both bands, and be able to chronicle their rivalry from both sides, and track both bands as they get into the major label system, deal with A&R, and tour the U.S. to audiences less rapt than their U.K. ones. Then that film crew would turn around, and make a documentary about the whole thing, pitting the bands against each other as diametrically opposed scions of the music industry. That doc would also go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
This very thing basically happened with Ondi Timoner’s DiG!, albeit on a much smaller scale than Blur and Oasis. In about 1995, Timoner took her camera to San Francisco to cover two bands that were making a lot of noise in the psych rock scene: the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It seemed like both bands were on the verge of getting signed to major labels, and taking some version of their underground rock into the mainstream like Nirvana did a couple years earlier. Things didn’t shake out that way, obviously. Timoner spent until around 2002 following both bands with her camera, capturing both stunning highs--the Dandys ended up being a big deal in Europe--and stunning lows--the house that Jonestown Massacre lived in ended up being basically a heroin shooting gallery, and ended up telling a story that is a lot bigger than just the tale of two bands. DiG! Is a portrait of the pre-Napster music industry, where coffers were flush, and taking a risk on a band of junkies that were known for fighting each other onstage and breaking up every night wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Despite being narrated by Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandys, the film’s nucleus and beating heart is Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe. The film dances around whether or not Newcombe is a crazy genius or just plain crazy, but it doesn’t take long to figure out why he was able to enchant A&R folks from every major label in 1996. We get a little of Newcombe’s backstory--raised by a mother who over disciplined him and left by an alcoholic schizophrenic father, Newcombe sort of just materialized in the early ‘90s San Francisco rock scene, showing up and sucking dozens of musicians into his vision for a rock ‘n’ roll that by that point was dead and buried. He favored sitars, and titled albums Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, and bragged about how he was able to record an entire album for $17 after conning some studio into giving him free recording time. After his band put out three albums in 1997, virtually every major label--then learning that the post-grunge bubble was bursting--started sniffing around, to the point where the band had a huge showcase show at the Viper Room, meant to start a bidding war between labels for the band. Newcombe--who, a bandmate says, believes success and credibility are mutually exclusive--sabotages his own showcase by picking a fight with his entire band, the audience, and the documentary crew itself, which happened to be in attendance. They played only one song, and the majors decided to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Dandys, who were Newcombe’s favorite band, instead coasted into a deal with Capitol Records. The film cruxes on this dichotomy. On the one hand, you have the Dandy Warhols, who wish they were living the life of the down-and-out rock band, partying with Harry Dean Stanton, and shooting dope, but are instead a line item on a music corporation’s quarterly earnings report. The Cold War of “my band is better” becomes an all out war between the Dandys and BJM, from Taylor taking his Alternative Press photographer to the BJM house to make it seem like it was the Dandys living in a flophouse, to Anton showing up at CMJ when the Dandys were playing and passing out his single, “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth,” a subliminal shot at his former friends who he felt had lost their way. Timoner captures multiple scenes of almost on-the-nose dichotomy, from the BJM guys going to the video shoot for the Dandys’ first major single for the free food, to the Dandys being let off on drug charges in Europe, when the BJM’s biggest U.S. tour was derailed by similar charges. As Courtney Taylor says, watching a BJM show that ended in a fight with a crowd, “This never happens to my band!”
The interpersonal strife between the bands is the meat of DiG!, but it veers into a can’t miss documentary when it diverts itself to be a commentary on the music industry. Adam Shore, the A&R guy who ultimately signed BJM to TVT Records despite every other A&R on earth avoiding the band like a plague, is the doc’s entre into the music business, where he discusses how it seems so obvious that a band like BJM should be on a label; they make albums for cheap and quickly, and have a fan base, so the label should just sign them and get out of the way. The fact that, in the ‘90s and to a lesser extent today, that something like 9 out of 10 of major label albums are considered a money loser, and that 1 out of 10 pays for the rest comes up again and again, as Shore displays his hubris on his deal for BJM--which ended up being a 9 out of 10 deal, ultimately, but he didn’t know it when he was being interviewed--and the Dandys, who had repeated conflicts with their label because they weren’t as successful as the label hoped when they signed them.
Ultimately, DiG! Is one of the best music documentaries considered for this column. The rare behind the scenes access makes part of it feel like a living Spinal Tap, while the industry discussions make it feel like you’re sitting in executive level suite, trying to decide for yourself if you would have taken the risk on either band. Ultimately, the Dandys had the “better” career, but BJM may have won the war; they’re more revered historically, and thanks to this doc, they’re destined to go down as, one of the Dandys says, “the Velvet Underground of the ‘90s.”