Dig! (documentary)

Plenty of Gen-Xers possessing even mild hipness have heard of the Dandy Warhols, but hardly anyone remembers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Dig!” is the documentary that explains why these two bands, who have similar styles and whose members were once friends, went such different directions. Here I am, no particular fan of either group, and I found the film immensely enjoyable, like watching an especially hilarious trainwreck as it happens.

The film, made by Ondi Timoner, who was for some reason following both bands around with a video camera all the time, begins in 1996, when the groups were beginning to emerge in the post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll scene. The Dandys, led by frontman Christian Taylor (who also narrates the film from a first-person perspective), hailed from Portland and were focused on making it big. L.A.’s Jonestown, led by insane, free-spirited Anton Newcombe, talked more about starting a “revolution” than making money. Indeed, Anton seems to sabotage every chance the band gets to land a recording contract, much to the consternation of some of his bandmates who don’t share his peculiar philosophy that being successful equals “selling out.”

The bands meet in San Francisco and immediately like each other, both professionally and socially. They do shows together. They hang out. They drink. A lot. Then the Dandys get signed to Capitol Records, and Jonestown takes the conflicting positions that the Dandys are 1) sell-out corporate shills and 2) really, really lucky, and boy we wish we were that lucky.

You see it in Anton’s increasingly erratic behavior, the result of drug use, mental illness running in his family (his schizophrenic father committed suicide on Anton’s birthday), and creative frustration. Anton is a ridiculously prolific songwriter — Jonestown released six self-published albums inside of two years — but his determination to prevent his band from striking it rich wears even on his own psyche. Seeing his fellow musicians, whose sound is similar to his own, must make him think, “That could have been us, couldn’t it?”

The ensuing adventures and misadventures for both bands are by turns amusing, incredible and sad. They provoke each other constantly. It’s usually Jonestown doing most of the provoking, but it certainly doesn’t help the relationship when the Dandys use Jonestown’s dilapidated L.A. house for a photo shoot, unannounced and uninvited.

At one point during a period of truce between the groups, Courtney Taylor tours with Jonestown. When a mini-riot breaks out at a show in Detroit, Courtney says, “This never happens to my band!” with the glee of a kid who’s being allowed to stay up past midnight at his friend’s house. To Anton and Jonestown, it’s old hat. They’re just glad it’s not the band members fighting each other (which sometimes happens, too, and yes, there’s footage of it in the film.)

Here’s how screwed up the Brian Jonestown Massacre is. When the opportunity arises to get signed by a major label, their manager wisely keeps Anton home and sends tambourine player Joel Gion to New York instead. But Joel Gion is Anton’s chief monkey boy, most inclined to do odd, flamboyant things in public, and the one who was seen in earlier footage pulling his pants down at a party so he could pour beer down his crack. This is who they send to the negotiations instead of Anton, but that’s not the crazy part. What’s crazy is that Joel is actually their best option.

You see these two bands, both very talented, both tormented by record labels, in-house fighting and inter-band squabbles, and you wonder if it’s all worth it. Anton says more than once that he just wants to perform, that he doesn’t care about all the other stuff. Courtney and the Dandys probably feel the same way, except they’re pragmatic enough to know that without money, they won’t be able to keep performing for very long. This film warns against rock stardom the way “Requiem for a Dream” warned against drugs. Music fans will find it especially fascinating — and it has a killer soundtrack, full of Dandys and Jonestown songs, to boot.

B+ (1 hr., 47 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, a little nudity, some drug use.)