A millennial documentary renaissance, aided in no small way by a favorable distribution climate, has shed glorious light on several emerging talents like Chris Smith and Sarah Price (makers of “American Movie” and “The Yes Men”), Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar (“The Corporation”) and John Dullaghan (“Bukowski: Born Into This”) as well as on seasoned masters like Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and Ross McElwee (“Bright Leaves”), both of whose latest work finds them in terrific form. Whether it’s about Robert S. McNamara or Charles Bukowski or, in the case of Ondi Timoner’s “Dig!,” a couple of contentious rock bands, a documentary appeals to our essential humanness, no matter how disparate and removed we feel from each other. And for a post-9/11 audience, eager for answers, anxious to dissect the system and bare for view the effects of its machinations in our daily lives, the interconnective quality of documentaries is reassuring.
As “Dig!’s” director, editor and co-producer, Timoner could’ve easily gotten overwhelmed by the tides of ego and excess that swirled around her in the thick of production. A raucous saga about the diverging fortunes of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the spectre of violent collapse hangs over “Dig!” While the Warhols’ career becomes more rarefied, playing sold-out shows, honing their glam-maverick image as they flirt with mainstream success, BJM’s prospects, trapped in the self-defeating cycle of its mad-genius frontman, Anton Newcombe, looks increasingly grim. Newcombe may be a stage-brawling malcontent resistant to embracing success, but, as “Dig!” showcases, he’s also a superbly gifted musician. That’s why it’s especially troubling to stare into Newcombe’s heroin-dulled eyes, late in the movie, as he mutters about an unfinished album and asks about the Warhols’ leader, Courtney Tayler, his long-estranged friend. An eerie pall hangs over this scene, one in which Newcombe’s so-scary-it’s-funny deterioration casts a shadow over his very life.
Timoner and her co-cinematographers David Timoner and Vasco Lucas Nunes tenaciously gathered seven years’ worth of interviews with Newcombe, Taylor and their respective band members, with record execs and music critics. Culled together with performance footage, going back to both bands’ earliest gigs, and scenes in the studio capturing the creative process, “Dig!” maintains a from-the-trenches immediacy that keeps us rooted. But it’s in the editing, in sculpting a coherent story out of this mountain of material, that “Dig!’s” really triumphs. Powered by the music and personalities of two undeniably talented bands, Timoner’s tightly structured narrative entertains but also offers an unflinching look at the rage and heartbreak that result in trying to stay true and pursue dreams in a soulless, image-driven business.
Having Taylor himself narrate “Dig!” proves an effective choice. Taylor is a shrewd self-promotor and musician, and he concedes total admiration for Newcombe’s indisputable genius. But his first-person reflections about the Warhols’ heady career and his volatile relationship with Newcombe is also rife with a primadonna-like self-satisfaction. Timoner counterbalances Taylor’s preening and the Warhols’ smarter, more career-minded drive with BJM’s on-the-road spontaneities, Newcombe’s breakdowns and his bursts of lovely songcraft. Creating this push-pull dynamic with both artists, celebrating the beauty of human creativity while indicting the self-serving forces that lurk within it, “Dig!” fulfills the function and promise of all great documentaries.
Written/Directed by: Ondi Timoner
Cast: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Joel Gion, Matt Hollywood,Peter Holmstrom, Zia McCabe