The rigors of the rock-and-roll roadshow were first immortalized in Richard Lester's classic 1964 film, "A Hard Day's Night." It's not that the spectacle of rock stardom had really ever been that much of a mystery. Lester was simply the first filmmaker to illuminate that experience from the inside, offering a backstage pass that fans had seldom been able to access. D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" captured Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England in the hand-held-camera style of cinema verite, further demystifying the world behind the curtain, and illuminating the momentary exhilaration and the inevitable boredom of dealing with sudden fame and seemingly inexhaustible fans.
The band-on-the-run formulas established by Lester and Pennebaker have been copied hundreds of times since the '60s, most recently in films about two influential and critically acclaimed groups--England's Radiohead and Washington's Fugazi--and how they deal with the shared experience of long, monotonous tours. "Radiohead: Meeting People Is Easy" (EMD, video and DVD) chronicles the 1997-98 world tour by the British quintet in support of its award-winning "OK Computer" album. "Fugazi: Instrument" (Dischord, video only) provides an impressionistic overview of the straight-out-of-hardcore punk band's evolution over its first decade.
"Meeting People Is Easy," a 94-minute film directed by Grant Gee, paints a particularly despairing picture of the rock star life, hardly surprising given Radiohead's generally gloomy worldview and leader Thom Yorke's practiced ennui. In contrast, "Instrument," a 115-minute film directed by Jem Cohen and Fugazi, offers a spirited travelogue in which the band seems far more engaged with both the music and the fans.
What's common to both films is a sense of great distances traveled, though the vehicles are quite different--Radiohead tours by private jet, Fugazi by van. Radiohead has all its needs taken care off by a large support crew; Fugazi takes care of itself, including schlepping its own equipment in and out of venues.
Gee shadowed Radiohead for more than a year following the 1997 release of "OK Computer." That album topped critics' polls internationally and provoked such encomiums (scanned in the film) as "one of the finest albums humanity has ever seen" and "a true articulation of the anxiety of late 20th century man . . . one of the greatest albums in living memory." It went on to sell almost 5 million copies worldwide.
But critical and commercial success, and the inevitable attendant celebrity, don't seem to suit Radiohead--as the film goes on, the band, and Yorke in particular, look like a small herd of deer caught in a very bright spotlight.
"Meeting People Is Easy" kicks off with a disembodied computer voice from "Fitter Happier." The song's sense of dislocation is underscored by skittery shots of narrow, empty streets in a looming metropolis (the song reappears soon after in a live Stockholm performance).
The centerpiece song early on is "Creep," the anguished anthem of self-loathing from 1993's "Pablo Honey" album, and the band's breakthrough single. When Yorke turns his strangled vocals to the key line, "I don't belong here," you believe him, even as his misery finds company in thousands of enthusiastic affirmations from audiences in Philadelphia and Paris.
Other "OK Computer" tracks include "Climbing Up the Walls," "Airbag," "Electioneering" and "Paranoid Android," most of them interspersing images and sounds from other songs that keep them from being straightforward performance videos. Sometimes, the meeting of old-fashioned musical cohesion and layers of artsy editing provides intriguing effects: "Karma Police" finds the band testily rehearsing that song on "The Late Show With David Letterman," then performing it most uncomfortably, while portions of the broadcast are observed on a monitor in an otherwise empty green room.
Even more compelling is "No Surprises." Gee also directed the original video, which shows Yorke's head encased in a glass diving helmet that slowly fills with water until the singer's face is completely submerged. Now we see how that video was made, with raw footage showing Yorke holding his breath until it's no longer possible, at which point the water is quickly released and he's left with tears in his eyes, desperately gasping for air.
The pain and terror in Yorke's face make palpable the horror of drowning and this image of anxiety and helplessness becomes the perfect metaphor for both the tour and the notion of sudden celebrity--Radiohead becomes the band in the bubble. Instead of water, they're swallowed up in an endless stream of promotional appearances, rehearsals, sound checks and concerts, photo opportunities and vapid interviews.
"If you're not saviors of rock, what are you?" asks one foreign journalist.
"Clueless!" Yorke insists.
And shellshocked after photo shoots in which barrages of flashbulbs and camera shutters sound like media machine guns strafing their souls.
There are some lighter moments in "Meeting People Is Easy": a cacophonous Diamanda Galas-style vocal warm-up exercise; the band finding itself excluded from its own party at a Philadelphia disco, skulking away to a fan's shouted encouragement to Yorke--"Dude, write a song about it, write it right now!" And there are several in-progress songs that have yet to appear officially, including the intriguing "Big Boots" and "Nude."
"Meeting People Is Easy" is beautifully filmed, and sharply edited (by Jerry Chater), but it sometimes belabors its message. In the end, the point of "Meeting People Is Easy" seems to be that being Radiohead isn't easy. While guitarists Colin Greenwood and Ed O'Brien seem affable enough, Yorke comes across as a permanently gloomy Gus who can't be bothered with music industry rituals and as the tour winds down, Yorke becomes increasingly surly before giving in to spiritual exhaustion.
Jem Cohen describes "Instrument" as "a visual record of musicmaking shot over 10 years." It's a nonlinear hodgepodge of sync-sound 16mm, Super 8, video and other archival formats, featuring concert and on-the-road footage, studio and practice sessions, as well as interviews with the band and some of its fans.
It took Cohen more than five years to craft this "Instrument" and not only did he eschew formal narrative and chronology--the film flips back and forth in time and locations--he incorporates a lot of soundtrack elements created specifically for the film by Fugazi.
There are still familiar songs like "Glue Man," "Song Number One," "Sweet and Low," "Great Cop" and "Repeater" (including a strange version performed for inmates at the Lorton Correctional Facility). But more of the soundtrack consists of sketchy instrumental music--mostly slow or medium tempo--that's seldom in sync with the visuals, much less with a specific song being played. The result is that during some of the most frantic performances--with clearly fervent vocals and frenetic guitars and drums--you don't hear the music being played. Instead, the performances are underscored with calm ambient instrumentals. And it works, in an oddly mesmerizing manner.
The end result is that "Instrument" is much more fragmented than the Radiohead film. Then again, it's not meant to be a career overview. After all, Fugazi has never made a promotional video, which is in keeping with the self-managed band's fiercely independent, ethical approach to making music, evident in their DIY label, Dischord, and a career-long policy of affordable access to their work through low album and ticket prices.
In that context, "Instrument" feels more like a fan's scrapbook filled with moving images: rehearsals in the basement of Dischord House or the living room of singer Ian MacKaye's grandparents' home in Connecticut; recording sessions at Don Zientara's wonderfully funky Inner Ear Studio; performances before passionate crowds at the Wilson Center and at the Washington Monument; an actual post-show financial accounting (to the tune "Purgatory"); simple fan portraits as they wait to get into a show; singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto's hilarious and astounding performance in a Philadelphia college gym in 1988, where he literally stuffs himself through a basketball hoop and performs hanging upside down by his legs.
Fugazi is certainly a more physical and demonstrative band than Radiohead, particularly the elastic and recklessly physical Picciotto and his perpetually bouncing counterpart, MacKaye.
And while Radiohead seems to take itself a tad too seriously, Fugazi takes itself just seriously enough, even addressing its hardcore-bred penchant for uncompromising ethical stands on everything from merchandising to community commitment (half the concerts in the film seem to be benefits or demonstrations). While they're thoughtful, they're not particularly self-absorbed and seem to actually enjoy what there is to be enjoyed on the road. And the release in Fugazi's music seems as emotionally cathartic for them as it is for their fans.
CAPTION: Coming to a video screen near you: Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, left, and Radiohead's Thom Yorke.