Sometimes music documentaries work in unexpected ways. A lot of the ones we’ve talked about here are about bands that are already either kaputt or past their prime, possibly looking to reinsert themselves into their respective genre’s canon. A handful, like Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, manage to capture a specific moment when things simply shifted skyward and marked an uptick in relevance and quality of output. For the Flaming Lips, their documentary Fearless Freaks seems to do almost the opposite. Capturing the band, a hybrid of punk and prog in equal measures, at their zenith of power before they took at least a step or two down the slippery slope of stagnation since
Honestly, though, how else are you supposed to talk about the Flaming Lips these days? They’re one of those bands that has grown up with their audience, and their experiences end up being reflected back into their music. In 2005, when Fearless Freaks was released, their most recent album was 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and before that was 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Both are arguably masterpieces of pop songwriting and production, and were treated as such. After grinding away for almost two decades they had hit the big time and were riding high on a crest of incredible good will. This film though marks the moment right before things got considerably more complicated for Wayne Coyne and the group.
In the intervening years Coyne and his wife split up, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd kicked heroin, and they acrimoniously gave the boot to their drummer Kliph Scurlock. They started hanging out with Miley Cyrus, who was then full on into her happy-hippie phase, Wayne started dating a woman half his age (fueling reasonable amounts of “mid-life crisis” speculation), and over the past decade they’ve released more goofball novelty products than actual albums. USB’s hidden in gummy skulls and album length covers of Dark Side of the Moon are great and all, but you’re drifting into third-act-of Boogie Nights cliche here, fellas... I’m bringing all this up to point out that the actual film we’re talking about this week is far from reflective of where things are now, or even that indicative of the path that they’d end up following immediately thereafter.
Directed by friend of the band Bradley Beesley, The Fearless Freaks falls in the unexpected sweet spot between fawningly affectionate portrayal and an in your face warts and all expose. This is a film that’s most notable, after all, for including a scene of Drozd actually shooting up heroin, so it’s certainly not pulling any of its punches. This almost distressing level of aggressive transparency is what sets Beesley’s film apart from just about every other rock doc out there, and I see it as an extension of Wayne Coyne’s compassionately libertarian approach to life and art in general. It’s an outlook that’s evident when we meet his brother Tommy, who Coyne affectionately describes as liking “to do things like go to jail and take drugs” without losing an ounce of love for his kin.
The film, like Coyne, is capable of seeing multiple sides of a thing at once, which is no small feat. The number of moments where critical voices are allowed in is as refreshing as it is revealing. For instance, when asked how he’d describe a Flaming Lips show, Gibby Haynes, of the Butthole Surfers, says “...well I’d first ask them if they’d ever seen a Butthole Surfers show...” which sets of a thoroughly convincing montage of moments where over the years Coyne has ripped off Haynes’s schtick. Somehow none of this registers as critical of the band or Coyne, which is mostly thanks to his endless pools of feel-good midwestern hippie optimism.
Nothing in here feels goosed up for drama, which is remarkable since this is a group who never passed up an opportunity to embrace a stunt. Even when Coyne enlists some Vietnamese children to elaborately reenact the moment when a gunman robbed the Long John Silvers he was working at, it all just feels like another day in the life of this strange dude who still loves nothing more than to freak the neighborhood kids out on Halloween. He may be losing a bit of his sparkle as he’s awkwardly aged into this elder acid-guide role, but Coyne still has tricks up his sleeve as not only a band leader but as just an all around ringleader of the katamari-style rolling roadshow that is a Lips concert. The Fearless Freaks reveal the roots of where that person and this band came from.