Ondi Timoner's "DIG!" is a family portrait, and the family is rock 'n' roll. In 1996, the filmmaker trained her camera on a couple of San Francisco bands starting out at square one; by sheer luck, she happened to pick the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The result is one of the most unforgiving ground-level documentaries about the music business ever made -- the six-string equivalent of "Hoop Dreams."
Pop-culture name-checking and grandiose aims were all the Dandys and the BJM had in common, but their divergent trajectories turned out to say plenty about selling out versus staying cool, and about whether madness is good for art or bad for everything. Above all, "DIG!" is a comedy about the American recording industry and a tragedy about Anton Newcombe, the talented train wreck who fronts the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
As captured here, Newcombe has the lanky psycho-sex appeal of a musical Vincent Gallo, and a self-destructive streak to match. Over the course of Timoner's seven years of filming, Newcombe spits out countless homemade albums, picks up excited industry buzz, breaks up his band, and shoots himself in the foot over and over again. That's when he's not shooting junk into his arm or kicking aggravated club goers in the head.
Over in the other corner is Courtney Taylor, leader of the Dandy Warhols and unabashed careerist. "I sneeze and hits come out," he announces in a conscious bit of braggadocio. But he's not fooling anyone, least of all the Capitol A&R man who signs the group. Says the suit, "The odds are that the Dandy Warhols, like everybody else, will fail."
They don't, but it takes a number of years and detours before the Dandys and their playful neo-glam sound find a niche in Europe after one 1997 US hit single, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth," one great album (2000's "13 Tales from Urban Bohemia"), and slowly declining Next Big Thing status.
Newcombe, meanwhile, takes the occasion of a 1997 showcase concert arranged by Elektra to melt down in front of an audience of industry bigwigs (Timoner's camera gets it all), and it's clear that he craves attention and loathes success in equal measure. The rebel stance works for a while, and the BJM's music, a propulsive post-psychedelic rumpus, adds to the street cred. So the band hangs on, hoping Newcombe's demons can be put to rest long enough to make a hit record.
Instead, Newcombe starts taking out his anger and envy on his rivals in the Dandy Warhols, sending them bullets with their names on them and recording a song called "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth." The funny thing is that Taylor and company never cease in their admiration for the BJM, to the point of barging into the Massacre's group house to film a video. Not the most diplomatic move.
I don't know that I've seen a film that better captures the tension between authenticity and ambition that bedevils modern rock music -- the sense that a mass audience is something to be desired and detested at one and the same time. For Taylor and the Dandys, this is another of life's little ironies. For Newcombe it's something more frightening, and his inability to deal with it leaves the musician increasingly isolated. By the closing scenes of "DIG!," he's onstage alone, and still the demons press in. The feeling that you're watching a gifted man destroy himself is such that you have to look away.
Among other things, Timoner makes the interesting point that parental divorce may be bad for band unity, with the well-adjusted Dandys coming from solid homes and the musicians in the Massacre from broken ones. There's also the suggestion that well-adjusted rock stars make hits while maladjusted rock stars make art, as well as the debunking of that notion through clear-eyed documentary observation. And there's the harrowing sight of Anton Newcombe running from something with such urgency that he never stops to think what he's running toward.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.