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Friday, October 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
"Dig!" it and weep: highs, lows of rock 'n' roll life

By Ted Fry
Special to The Seattle Times

The documentary "Dig!" follows the friendship and rivalry between Courtney Taylor, left, of the Dandy Warhols, and Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
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If a captivating media chronicle like "Dig!" convinces you that the horrendous spectacle known as "reality TV" is pure rubbish, well done. If you see "Dig!" as a wildly entertaining movie that ranks with the best vérité documents that have captured remarkable events in pop (and pop music) sociology, all the better.

Using nothing more than a handheld mini-DV camera and intimate companionship, Ondi Timoner spent seven years keeping near-24/7 tabs on bands the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. "Dig!" is the riveting result; the real "Real World" of a raw, unflinching diary that captures the personalities of creative, sometimes crazy people as their lives and careers clashed, clicked, connected, imploded and moved together in outrageous harmony or unrestrained dissonance.

The main characters in this crude soap opera are Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, respective leaders of cult band the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) and Portland pop heroes the Dandy Warhols. When the story starts in 1996, the two are merely unacquainted fans of each other. But they soon meet and find themselves kindred in many ways, not least for the smart, '60s-influenced modern psychedelic pop that gave each band its distinctive edge.

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"Dig!," with the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Written and directed by Ondi Timoner. 105 minutes. Not rated, suitable for mature audiences. Varsity.

One of the music-industry flunkies interviewed (there are many and are almost uniformly sleazy caricatures) describes the Dandy Warhols as, "so future, so retro, they were American heritage reinterpreted." Another breathlessly calls the BJM "the Velvet Underground of the '90s."

That's the music, and it's undeniably great, as many who are familiar with both bands know. But the real story is of the spectacle that befell the individual and collective personae of the bands behind the music — with one riding the fast track to major-label hypedom, and the other continually imploding from ego, self-destruction and supercharged creative juice that often flowed like acid.

The Dandies, as they are affectionately known, were spotted early on by Capitol Records, which invested big money grooming them as a hot property for young consumers. They recognized Taylor as a dynamic pretty-boy pop sensation and threw $400,000 at them, along with diva fashion photographer Dave La Chapelle, for their first video.

Their ride up was bumpy with some minor success, but the odds were against the Dandies. They ran into business hassles with Capitol, and as one insider confides, "Major labels lose money on 9 out of 10 bands." Throughout it all, Taylor narrates and often speaks directly to Timoner's camera with acutely articulate intelligence and heartfelt frustration.

Meanwhile, back at the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Newcombe continually sabotages any chance of his band making the kind of leap the Dandies did. Unstable and addled by constant drug use, Anton speaks with intellect, but is clearly nuts and has a mentality that careens between rationality and rage. BJM shows were notorious for ending in chaos.
The early collaboration and friendship between the bands turn to rivalry and spite over the course of the movie's seven-year countdown, but the mutual admiration remains. Taylor describes the change as starting out affable like the Beatles vs. the Stones, but turning bitter à la Blur vs. Oasis.

"Dig!" is a genuine rock mockumentary. Cautionary? Naw, but sometimes scary, often hilarious and always engrossing.

Ted Fry:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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