Dig! is an old school rockumentary of the kind you rarely see these days; grainy and candid and mercifully free from corporate gloss and celebrity fan-wank ramblings. Filmmaker Ondi Timoner spent a good chunk of the last decade following the careers of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the results are hilarious and tragic in equal measures.
Starting out as friends, the members of both bands would hang out together, party together, gig together and generally revel in the druggy, laidback lifestyle of struggling West Coast musicians. But as things start to take off for the Warhols this initial camaraderie descends into enmity. And though he’s not solely to blame, much of this bitter rift results from the behaviour of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s erratic and terminally self-destructive lead singer Anton Newcombe.
Though narrated by the Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor, it’s clear from pretty early on that this is Anton’s film. He’s a fascinating character; the word genius is bandied about on numerous occasions in terms of his song writing ability, but what comes across most strongly is his ability to alienate everyone he comes into contact with, be they friends, bandmates, audience members or managers.
Clearly the man is troubled. Timoner grants us a brief glance of Newcombe’s family life and we learn that his mother is the very definition of emotional remoteness and his alcoholic father committed suicide early in the shoot. Yet, even with this knowledge, it’s hard not to laugh (in a pained kind of way) as Anton disrupts a Dandy Warhols press showcase whilst wearing a Cossack hat and a pair of rollerskates.
Despite this, the Warhols’ Zia McCabe still calls BJM “the Velvet Underground for the 90s” and there are plenty of people willing to make similar claims, but we never really get to appreciate the true scope of Anton’s talent because he’s too busy kicking audience members in the head or getting busted for drug possession. His capacity for self-sabotage is immense and eventually even his bandmates (the Andy Kaufman-esque Joel Gion and the relatively stable Matt Hollywood), who are accustomed to being on the receiving ends of his rants and his fists, refuse to take it anymore.
While, with the help of a certain mobile phone commercial, the Warhols finally got the success they sought, able to headline Reading and tour Europe, it’s clear that on some level, Taylor wants to be Anton. To be this tortured, troubled genius; to truly not give a fuck about anyone or anything except the music; to exist in this timewarp bubble blind to corporate concerns. Early in the film the Dandy Warhols have their pictures taken in the BJM’s tatty, barely furnished apartment clearly hoping some of the latter’s unforced rawness and spontaneity will rub off; later Taylor throws a mini-hissy fit at a David LaChapelle video shoot, but he’s just too well-adjusted to pull it off, he’s not in the same league.
Dig! is overlong and rambling, but the film wouldn’t have the same effect if it was tighter. Timoner employs some suitably trippy visuals and was blessed with her fair share of Spinal Tap moments. (“I sneeze and hits come out.” “They broke my motherfucking sitar!”) But it’s the portrait of Anton, wild-eyed and alone, incapable of doing right by himself – barred even from seeing his son – that lingers and cements this film’s brilliance.