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A One-Man Battle of the Bands

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page WE34

ONDI TIMONER'S DUAL and dueling documentary "DIG!" is rock 'n' roll psychodrama, a battle of two bands that's no less riveting for being essentially one-sided. The film also offers a powerful cautionary tale about the perils of pop, suggesting that neither selling out nor holding out are likely to bring rewards in an industry where 90 percent of releases fail to recoup their investment.

But "DIG!," culled from 1,500 hours of footage shot over seven years, is ultimately undermined by the fact that the two rock bands Timoner chose to focus on -- the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols -- simply don't matter as much as she thinks they do, and certainly not nearly as much as the bands' egotistical frontmen -- Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, respectively -- think they do.

The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor, left, and Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre are the subjects of the rock- umentary "DIG!" (Kelly White)

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"Forget about all those other bands," Newcombe tells the camera early on. "We're going to have a full-scale musical revolution," one that he enlists the Dandy Warhols for. Timoner, however, never really explains any underlying bond or the comradeship turned adversarial. When she started filming in 1995, both bands were unsigned, full of hope, ambition and attitude. As fortune would have it, the power-pop-leaning Dandy Warhols quickly signed to a major label (Capitol) and achieved a modicum of success, while the '60s pastiche-favoring BJM became a celebrated -- or more accurately, notorious -- cult-level indie failure.

As a result, what might have simply been a meditation on the vagaries of success vs. failure, commerce vs. art, became a caustic record of Newcombe vs. Taylor and, ultimately, Newcombe vs. Newcombe. "DIG!" captures one of the most troubled, combative personalities in a field well-populated with quirky characters. Newcombe is hardly the first musician whose potential vision is blurred or blocked by personality disorders. Sadly, his are substantial, and perhaps hereditary: His father, who suffered from alcoholism and schizophrenia, is shown holding up a copy of "Thank God for Mental Illness," a 1996 BJM album reportedly recorded for $17. The film notes that soon after, Newcombe's father killed himself -- on his son's 30th birthday.

Taylor, who narrates "DIG!," calls Newcombe "the greatest inspiration and ultimately the greatest regret," and it's clear that Taylor was, and even now remains, one of Newcombe's biggest fans. At least as far as music is concerned: The film shows how much, and how often, Taylor's and the Warhols' fandom and friendship were tested.

At the start, Newcombe's misbehavior simply seems mischievous, the work of a confident rebel looking to succeed on his own terms against what he perceives to be a corrupt music industry. He's dismissive of the Dandy Warhols yet oddly jealous as well. But every time opportunity knocks, Newcombe sabotages himself. The most vivid example is when BJM gets a crucial industry showcase at Los Angeles' fabled Viper Room. There, Newcombe goes berserk, firing a musician in the middle of the show for playing a wrong note, then wildly trashing the band's equipment and generating a huge brawl that spills from the stage. Label execs head for the exits; they never come back.

But "DIG!" (which won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at this year's Sundance Festival) never makes a convincing argument for Newcombe's musical genius, or supports one A&R exec's evaluation that BJM's music is "so retro and so the future . . . it's the American heritage reinterpreted." Taylor calls Newcombe "this brilliant monster creator of art that's generally three years ahead," but the music in the film seldom warrants such praise. On the other hand, "DIG!" is increasingly full of Newcombe's assaults, verbal and physical: Several key BJM players quit over the course of filming as their leader's alcohol and heroin abuse provide further destabilizing elements. Behavior that was once annoyingly amusing becomes terrifying. Fans start going to BJM shows less for the music than for potential mayhem and on-stage meltdowns.

Still, Newcombe seems overly fixated on the Dandy Warhols, particularly after that band makes an awful and awfully expensive ($400,000) video with hip director David LaChapelle for "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," lambasting those whose actions are simply for the sake of being cool -- a clear dig at Newcombe. BJM responds with a single, "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth," and engages in a sophomoric guerrilla campaign at the CMJ music conference in New York. Stalking ensues, and threats lead to restraining orders. But the conflict seems entirely one-sided on Newcombe's part and the stakes, which he envisions as being of Beatles/Rolling Stones or Blur/Oasis proportions, are decidedly minimal, despite Taylor's early claim that "I sneeze and hits come out."

Sadly, America seems inoculated: With weak sales and little airplay, the Dandy Warhols get little or no support from Capitol and always seem on the verge of being dropped until one of their songs, "Bohemian Like You," becomes a huge hit in Europe after being used in a cell phone commercial. In the end, the Dandy Warhols, whose aspirations are mundane and mainstream, look comfortable playing rock festivals in front of tens of thousands of fans. BJM, and specifically Newcombe, seem at odds even with an audience of 10. Sympathy for his situation will rest entirely on the viewer's tolerance for ego run amok or empathy for a clearly troubled soul.

DIG! (Unrated, 107 minutes) -- Contains profanity, drug use and brief nudity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company