When good rockers go bad

The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre were best friends. Then they agreed to be filmed for a documentary
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The Independent Culture

This year, there has been a mini-explosion of rock-music documentaries. We've seen Janis Joplin shrieking her way through "Piece of My Heart" in Festival Express, the punk rockers The Ramones wreaking havoc in New York's underground music scene in End of the Century, and the members of Metallica confronting their inner demons in Some Kind of Monster. Those are not just movies for die-hard fans. Nor are they real-life counterparts to This Is Spinal Tap whose main appeal lies in the opportunity to marvel at the magnificently pompous antics of hairy men with big guitars. As their enthusiastic reception at various festivals (Sundance, Slamdance, Rotterdam, Edinburgh) attests, the so-called rockumentaries are being taken very seriously by critics and audiences alike.

The rock-doc with the best reviews of all is about two US indie bands. Ondi Timoner's Dig! (a grand prix-winner at Sundance) follows the wildly varying fortunes of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The former have headlined music festivals in Europe. Their best known song, "Bohemian Like You", was used in a Vodafone advert. The latter, though heralded as geniuses by the British singer-songwriter Genesis P Orridge, of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle fame, are more obscure.

Why should a general audience be interested in yet another film about the antics of would-be rock stars? The answer is that Timoner has happened upon a story with universal appeal. Dig! has all the standard ingredients that come with the genre (brawling, drug addiction, mindless hedonism), but Timoner's trump card is her main protagonist, Anton Newcombe, who founded The Brian Jonestown Massacre in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in 1990.

Newcombe is a throwback: a musician who looks as if he rightfully belongs in the Californian music scene of the psychdelic Sixties. He is obsessed with Charles Manson and dresses in a style which evokes memories of both The Beatles on their consciousness-raising trips with the Maharishi and of The Monkees. He thinks nothing of wearing roller skates, kaftans and fur hats. He plays every instrument, from the guitar to the sitar. He is charming, charismatic and writes beguiling music which sounds as if it comes straight from the summer of love. He is also a raving egomaniac who sooner or later alienates almost everyone he works with and whose gigs frequently degenerate into mass brawls. In other words, he is the kind of combustible and contradictory personality that any documentary thrives on.

When she first encountered Newcombe in the mid-1990s, Timoner was in her early twenties. She had recently graduated from Yale and had a hankering to make a film that "deconstructed" the music business. Her intention was to film 10 up-and-coming bands. In the event, her documentary was hijacked by Newcombe. He was close friends with Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols, whom he regarded as an ally in his messianic, if ill-defined, bid to reinvent the music business. ("He was longing for that Sixties camaraderie he'd read about in books about The Beatles and the Stones," Timoner says.)

Dig! plays like an indie band version of Amadeus, with Newcombe as the tambourine-wielding Mozart and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols (also the narrator) as the Salieri-figure. Newcombe's songwriting is never in doubt, but (as his former manager puts it) "he is so horrible in so many ways."

Timoner recounts how in 1996, she filmed The Brian Jonestown Massacre at their most important gig yet at the Viper Lounge in Los Angeles. Dozens of record company execs were in attendance, drawn by the huge buzz then surrounding the band. All the BJM had to do to secure a record contract was play a half-decent set. Timoner watched with bemusement as Newcombe lost his temper (he was always furious when someone missed a note) and the band proceeded to brawl among themselves before storming off stage.

As the years passed, it became apparent that Newcombe and Taylor had radically different visions. The Dandy Warhols wanted success, even if it meant kowtowing to the record company bosses. They signed to Capitol, and their songs were soon receiving saturation coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. "Anton became very, very angry with them," Timoner recalls. "[He was] jealous, definitely, but he also felt they had betrayed his ideals."

Newcombe, meanwhile, wasn't ready to compromise for or with anyone. We look on with horrified fascination as he experiments with drugs ("Heroin makes Anton evil," one onlooker observes), picks yet more fights with band members and spectators, and abuses his colleagues.

"He can be so charming. He is such a compelling figure. I loved working with him," Timoner says of him, but then remarks that his behaviour often went beyond the pale. "It was very sad and frustrating for me... I am not a doctor to say he is schizophrenic, but he definitely has major mood-swings and self-medicates with alcohol and drugs." The irony is that he was always the one with the real talent. Even Taylor acknowledged the fact. As Timoner says: "Courtney is such an egomaniac, but the saving grace is how humble he is about Anton. No matter what, he keeps saying this guy is incredible."

Dig! was largely self-financed. Timoner spent close to eight years filming the two bands and paid her bills by directing commercials and pop promos between times. Realising that the documentary was turning into "the Shoah of rock", she called a halt to shooting and began trying to winnow down her footage to feature length. The film, when it finally surfaced in Sundance, was rapturously received by almost everyone - with the very notable exception of Newcombe himself, who called it a "Jerry Springer-esque" vilification.

Post Dig!, Newcombe continues to make music. Timoner has recently accepted a commission from Chris Blackwell (of Island records fame) to direct a film about the history of Jamaican music. The two old friends remain in touch - albeit through lawyers. Newcombe has agreed to contribute a commentary track to the DVD, but they're unlikely to be working together again any time soon. "I would love for him to love the film... I still love Anton," she reflects." I've just spent enough time with him in my life."

'Dig!' is showing, as part of the London FIlm Festival, at the Odeon West End, London WC2 (0871 224 4007) tonight, 9pm

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