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The Battle of the Bands: Art vs Commerce: 'DIG!' and 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster' Are about More Than the Music

By Kathy McDonald

The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor (left) and Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcomb, from Ondi Timoner's 'DIG!' Photo: Kelly White.

Popular music is the soundtrack of modern life. But there's a perceived conflict in the creation of such art: in order to be successful, musicians must sell out and play the commercial game, losing the outsider status that once inspired them. The tension inherent in music's creative process is the common thread found in two feature documentaries that were showcased at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Ondi Timoner's DIG! won the 2004 Documentary Grand Jury Prize, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster played out of competition in the American Spectrum category.

Both sets of filmmakers explore the well-trodden genre of music documentary; the results, however, are much more complex than the often-imitated Behind the Music format. As director/producer/editor Timoner explains, "The question I was trying to answer was, How can someone keep their art form pure and maintain their creative integrity in the face of commercial success?" It's the rare artist who stays in touch with his/her core—"keeping their soul intact," notes Timoner.

Using footage captured over a seven-year period, DIG! tracks the careers of two alternative rock bands—Portland's the Dandy Warhols and San Francisco's Brian Jonestown Massacre. The Dandys rise from unsigned newcomers to stadium-fillers, while their counterparts implode under the direction of Anton Newcombe, the group's ultra-charismatic but troubled lead singer.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, scheduled for a summer release through IFC Films, also gives audiences an extremely close-up view of music creation. However, the scale is oversized, as Metallica has been a multi-platinum selling band for almost two decades, reaching an iconic status in the heavy metal realm. The feature documentary very consciously ends where most music films begin—as the band takes the stage. The only song that is performed in its entirety runs under the end credits. "The last thing we wanted to do was a concert film," explains co-director Berlinger.

Seeking to resuscitate its muse, Metallica hires a therapist/performance enhancement coach named Phil Towle to essentially lead the band members and longtime producer Bob Rock in group therapy. The sessions bring to light long-simmering conflicts within the songwriting team (drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield). However ludicrous the concept sounds, Metallica, like a long-married couple, benefits exceptionally from therapy. Together, the band members weather Hetfield's months-long stint in rehab and ultimately come together to record a new album, find a new bassist and reinvigorate their creative relationship.

According to Berlinger, the filmmakers sought to answer some serious questions:  "How do you deal with the demons of success? How does a group, whose music is born out of anti-authoritarian rage, stay vital musically when they're no longer young and rebellious? Where is the source of anger? Of inspiration?"

Combining a sampling of archival concert footage, present-day interviews and 1,600 hours of in-studio and digitally-shot vérité material recorded over 180 days, the co-directors and supervising editor David Zieff weave together an intimate account of the band's struggle. In particular, Urlich emerges as a character of wit, intelligence and artistic integrity, willing to confront past actions (such as the firing of the former lead guitarist) and push the band to another level. By the close of the film, the band's dynamic is reworked, allowing the band to "still create really aggressive music," albeit from a positive place, says Ulrich.

Berlinger is quick to point out that although the subject may seem a departure from the pair's previous celebrated collaborations—Brother's Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost (1996)—Metallica is consistent with their earlier work. "I think the film is a very complex, exploration that breaks down stereotypes," explains Berlinger. The feature also comes with its own built-in, worldwide fan base of Metallica enthusiasts. "To me the challenge is to cross over into the specialized [film] audience and make people see that the film is about human relationships and the creative process," says the filmmaker.

Berlinger hopes that audiences will become emotionally vested and engaged as preconceptions are stripped away. "The film is a very different journey than what you would expect," contends the filmmaker. "For me, that's what good documentary making is about: dragging people into worlds they don't want to go to and seeing that world with new eyes."

Utilizing a chronological timeline, both Metallica and DIG! play like narratives (DIG! strictly; Metallica with some framing interviews). The characters constantly evolve. As Timoner explains, one of the reasons she started her own production company, Interloper, was to "shoot life as it unfolds." Her goal was to bring audiences viscerally into the artist's expressionistic experience. "In order to do that you have to amass a mountain of footage and then you have to climb that mountain; hence, three years of editing," she says. 

Her original idea, entitled The Cut, was to follow 10 unsigned bands on the verge of commercial breakthrough. She quickly singled out the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre (none of the other bands she tracked are still extant today). She recorded enough footage to tell the same story three times over. "All the scenes in the film are tips of the iceberg," notes Timoner. "We have stories upon stories." One of the reasons Timoner was attracted to Palm Pictures' offer to distribute was the fact that Palm will create a double DVD to follow the film's theatrical release.

Beginning in 1995, Timoner shot the musicians on Hi-8 and then moved to digital video once that format was available. One of her favorite tools was a spy camera, which she wore attached to her hat, allowing for low-light, wide-angle coverage. Concert footage was shot in Super-8, 16mm and 35mm (for the Dandys' performances). Timoner self-financed the film and describes the project as an organic, family affair: Her brother David and boyfriend Vasco Nunes served as co-producers and cinematographers.

Just days before Sundance, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Newcombe called Timoner and advised her that she had "missed it," as he had just played in front of the Statue of Liberty. "You have to stop at a point," Timoner maintains. "I wanted to make a document that exists as a watermark, (of the bands' careers)."

Back in 1995, both bands were unsigned upstarts, and the musicians were friends. DIG! shows some of their early gigs and collaborative efforts, even some-post performance partying. But the friendship eventually soured. Timoner describes the relationship between the Dandy Warhols' lead singer Courtney Taylor and Newcombe as star-crossed friends-turned-rivals. Taylor still maintains that he's inspired by Newcombe's music. Conversely, Newcombe claims the Dandys rip off his ideas.

Timoner was attracted to both bands because of their originality. Taylor describes himself as a square having to fit into his label's very round Capitol Records building. Newcombe maintains that success and credibility cannot co-exist and declares, "He's not for sale." DIG! captures Newcombe's methodical sabotage of his career--from an aborted showcase for record execs at the Sunset Strip's Viper Room to heroin addiction.

Music and lyrics drive DIG!'s narrative. "The music serves to solidify the mood, time and place of the characters. It provides a bed for themes we explore," explains Timoner, noting that she aimed to parallel the band's music with their actions and emotions. The soundtrack becomes a statement that reflects the content of the film. 

In Metallica, Berlinger and Sinofsky use music to underscore and demonstrate how life events translate into music. At one point, the band is asked to record a rather cheesy radio promo. The members bond together against a common enemy—corporate mandated, crass commercialism. A line from "Sweet Amber" comes right out of the session: "I'll wash your back if you don't stab mine." Throughout the film, lyrics underscore and create a connection between events and songs. "Shoot Me Again" reflects Ulrich's experience in his one-man campaign against music-sharing service Napster.  "Lars felt alone and betrayed by other artists," explains Berlinger. "The impact of the Napster backlash led to the creation of the song."

In 2001, the filmmakers were hired by Metallica's label Elektra Records to document the making of the band's next record, St. Anger. The filmmakers had originally contacted the band while editing Paradise Lost in 1995. The boys charged with murder in that film are deemed devil worshippers because of their admiration for Metallica. Eventually, the band licensed music for the documentary without charging a fee.

Before Berlinger and Sinofsky could finish Metallica, the label insisted that they cut the film into an Osborne-style reality TV show. After the filmmakers spent months re-digitizing and editing down material, the band decided that they weren't interested in an overtly promotional piece and bought out Elektra from the production. Subsequently, the band gave the filmmakers complete creative freedom to finish the film; they received only minor notes from the group after a rough-cut screening. "I never had a more fulfilling professional experience," says Berlinger.

Inspiration for the structure of the film came from the Maysles brothers' Gimme Shelter (1970). Berlinger and Sinofsky once worked for the influential documentary filmmakers and their late editor/co-director Charlotte Zwerin. "Our film is an homage in many non-obvious ways," says Berlinger. "To me the reason Gimme Shelter is such a brilliant film is that it transcends the music. Although musically driven, it's not about music but more a document about the fading dreams of the '60s." 

Timoner also began her professional film career in the documentary world, working as an assistant to doc maven Mitchell Block at Direct Cinema. DIG! explores some of the issues Timoner faced as a talented newcomer in Hollywood. Her Yale student film, The Nature of the Beast (1994), caught the attention of agents and producers who wanted to fictionalize the documentary's story of a woman convicted of murdering a pregnant woman. "I wanted to get the protagonist out of prison; they wanted to take the story and distort it," explains Timoner.

She eventually created an original series, Sound Affects, for VH1 as well as directed numerous music videos while concurrently making DIG!. Timoner finished the feature the same week she gave birth to her son, Joaquim. Those experiences grounded her and helped prepare her for Sundance's spotlight. "There's a sense in which the industry is here today, gone tomorrow," she observes. "There's some people who act like heat-seeking missiles, playing it safe, always looking for what's the next hot thing."

DIG! is scheduled to appear in a number of festivals, with a theatrical release planned for later in the year. Adds Timoner, "DIG! has been my own personal love affair and nightmare for the last seven years. I'm happy to finally share it with people."


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety's special reports.