Dig! Review

Dig! presents us with a tale of two bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. Constructed from footage which had been amassed almost single-handedly by director Ondi Timoner over a period of seven years, it presents the viewer with many possible interpretations. It could be read as a cautionary tale or as a success story. A character assassination or a dig at the music industry itself. It is, by turns, fascinating and repellent, continuously funny and ultimately quite draining. In other words, this isn’t your standard rock documentary, but an epic squeezed into less than two hours.

Given the number of layers it’s hard to say exactly where Dig!’s centre lies and as such it is perhaps best to begin simply with the bands themselves. The Brian Jonestown Massacre (henceforth the BJM) and the Dandy Warhols both sprung out of the same scene at approximately the same time during the mid-nineties. Admittedly, the film is so focussed on these groups that we never discover whether a scene actually existed, but nonetheless Anton Newcombe does emerge as its figurehead. Singer-songwriter from the BJM and a multi-instrumentalist to boot, he’s the key character in Dig!. An immensely talented performer, he also proves himself to be incredibly self-destructive as he fucks up one gig after another, one recording contract after another, and slowly descends into drug addiction.

His opposite number is Courtney Taylor, lead singer of the Warhols, the band who go onto achieve the success which so often eludes the BJM. Yet whilst Dig! could be read as a black and white tale of the band that succeeds and the band that doesn’t, it’s difficult to be so reductive. The Warhols’ success comes in fits and starts – a hit single every few years, primarily in the UK and the Europe as opposed to the States – and also contains its fair share of hiccups. It is here where the film bares its teeth to the music industry as it documents wrangles over video shoots or choices for singles and exposes them as a soulless entity predicated on money and returns. Not that Taylor is in anyway an innocent, however; just like Newcombe he’s in possession of a terrific ego.

And of course, this is what makes the pair so fascinating. As it’s pointed out by one interviewee, they want to be each other: Newcombe wants Taylor’s level-headedness and ability to succeed, whilst Taylor’s wants Newcombe’s purity of vision and near effortless talent. Moreover, they appear to feed off each other which, of course, fuels the rivalry and sees it overspill into jealousy, bitchiness and even a restraining order as their bands head of in separate directions.

Importantly, this symbiosis allows Dig! to retain its balance. We need to see the Warhols’ success in order to understand Newcombe’s behaviour and vice versa. Had it been a film which simply focussed on one aspect it would no doubt be impossible to fully understand it. As it is the inner tensions are laid bare which only makes, say, the BJM’s onstage fighting and self-destructive impulses all the more affecting. Early on Newcombe is referred to by one interviewee as have that same messianic quality which connected Jesus, Charles Manson and Adolph; later on it’s Lennon, McCartney and Dylan who serve as the reference point. At first you take this as simple playing up to the camera, yet as we progress we learn that he does possess extraordinary character traits perfect for a documentary. Furthermore, to quote another speaker, “he’s not just a jerk”, but then this also plays a huge part.

None of which would mean much if Timoner hadn’t been allowed her access. But in being there since the early days – pre-record deals and all that – you increasingly feel the trust she’s gained. We see the drug abuse, the arguments, the arrests, the remarkable BJM gigs (not only for the music but also their often violent conclusions; indeed, every gig would appear to be a mini-epic which could easily justify its own documentary) and genuinely get close to those on screen. The most singularly astonishing moment sees Newcombe locking himself in a toilet with the director (who, it must be added, has been invited in) just as the police are about to arrest for kicking an audience member in the face.

Interestingly, Timoner is also confident enough in her material that she freely digresses down little alleyways whenever she sees fit. Newcombe’s rebellious childhood comes under the microscope for example, revealing a twice divorced father with a drink problem and mental illness (we also learn that he commits suicide not after his interview had taken place on Anton’s birthday). And then there are the little details which allow us go even further into the bands’ respective (collective?) mythologies, if you will. At one point the BJM play a gig in front of only ten people and don’t stop playing for almost ten hours.

Ultimately this produces a huge mosaic of a movie through which we’re able to plot our own course. Dig! never really concludes as such which only serves to make all the more organic feeling. Certainly, there are framing interviews with key players and participants, plus a connecting voice-over from Taylor himself (though never at expense of the film’s dramatic balance), yet still it’s difficult to pin everything down with the utmost precision. Rather it’s a work to come back to, hopefully with a clearer picture emerging each time, though some questions will never be answered. Such as what kind of role it is that the BJM’s Joel Gion plays in the band exactly. Is he their equivalent of Bez?

The Disc

Given its seven year shooting period, Dig! understandably encompasses pretty much every kind of film stock you could imagine, from surveillance tapes to Super 8, digital video to 35mm, and therefore a film who’s intended ratio is 1.33:1. As such it’s difficult to assess the picture quality in a satisfactory manner, though presumably the various flaws in the image (high grain one minute, warped tape the next) are all inherent in the original material and not a fault of the disc itself. That said, a look at the BBFC’s website reveals that this DVD is in fact one minute and seven seconds longer than its theatrical showing so we may very well have an NTSC-PAL conversation on our hands. That said, the dizzying range of film stocks means that this cannot be satisfactorily confirmed. If anyone knows otherwise then please post a comment below.

In typical Tartan fashion the disc also comes with a choice of soundtracks in the form of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS mixes. In this case it is the 5.1 option which is the original soundtrack and should therefore be the one to go for. That said, all three sound fine, with the stereo offering being surprisingly dynamic and the DTS mix perhaps having the edge during some of the slicker concert footage. Either way, the choice you go for is likely to come down to personal preferences.

Given that Tartan’s planned two-disc edition of Dig! has been postponed until early 2006, this particular release offers only a handful of extras. Unsurprisingly, these contain the theatrical trailer plus a trailer reel for other Tartan releases and as such the only piece of note is the 15-minute interview with Timoner. Though fairly brisk, this addition is nonetheless brimful of information. We learn of the project’s origins (Timoner began with ten bands before getting drawn in by Newcombe and Taylor), the fact that it was almost entirely self-financed and get some discussion of the logistics of editing down seven years worth of footage into a more palatable duration. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that her first cut came in at five hours.

As with the main feature, optional English subtitles are available for this interview.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:11:30

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