DIG! to be one of the best

Despite recent exceptions like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me, documentaries remain a very distant second to narrative films in the category of mass appeal. The public seems to think documentaries are all slow and boring, with little entertainment value. If this is the case, it should only take one viewing of a film like DIG! to change minds.

DIG! spans seven years in the lives of two up-and-coming indie rock bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre [BJM]. Their story is a fascinating one, and director Ondi Timoner captures every juicy moment on camera.

“I started off with 10 bands, doing a story about art meets industry,” Timoner explains. “I heard the music of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and it was unlike any music I had ever heard at the time. I thought they were some band from the 60s I had missed.”

Timoner went to Portland, Ore., to meet the BJM’s wildly eccentric lead singer, Anton Newcombe, who announced that his band would soon be taking over her film. He introduced her to Courtney Taylor, a friend, inspiration and lead singer of another Portland rock band, The Dandy Warhols.

From there, Timoner and a small crew followed the two bands everywhere, filming, as she puts it, “Everything that makes up a life.” Her goal was to avoid making a documentary that looked back on the action it covered, instead hoping to move along with it, like a narrative film would. She succeeded brilliantly, and the result netted her the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, arguably the top honor for an independent documentary in the world.

The reason DIG! is able to be both entertaining and thorough at the same time is a credit not only to Timoner, whose editing is top notch, but also to the stories of the two bands. Newcombe makes good on his promise to take over the film by being as self-destructive as possible, ruining concerts and friendships with little remorse. Taylor, on the other hand, is a smart businessman, and while the BJM are still playing in front of a few dozen people, The Dandy Warhols are signing with Capitol Records and are seemingly on their way to stardom. The success of the Dandys angers Newcombe, especially given his disapproval of their first semi-hit, the fairly mainstream “I Never Thought You’d Be a Junkie.”

Given a general description, Newcombe could seem like any other spoiled rock star, but he’s not, and that’s what makes DIG! more than just another fun and trashy rock doc. Newcombe is deeply troubled, but not entirely unlikable, and this causes sympathy for him instead of outright hatred. Taylor, an egotist in his own right, looks like a saint next to Newcombe, and as a result, he cooperated fully with the film, helping Timoner to promote it and lending his voice to the narration. Newcombe, on the other hand, posted a tirade on his website, calling the film a “misrepresentation,” and saying he felt “ripped off.”

Timoner was not surprised when Newcombe responded negatively to the film. “I would expect it to be hard for him to look in the mirror,” she says, also mentioning his tendency to “rewrite history instantly.”

For all his mistakes and bad behavior, Newcombe is considered by most to be nothing short of a musical genius. He plays a seemingly endless amount of instruments, sings, writes and mixes-tracks himself. Taylor, himself a unique talent, readily admits that Newcombe is better than him, even after their friendship has fallen apart. An observer notes that they both wanted to be each other, but whether Newcombe really wants to change is debatable.

DIG! is one of the best documentaries of the year, and one of the best stories about rock music ever put on film. Part of the credit belongs to Newcombe for screwing up so badly so many times, but the 2000 hours of footage would have been useless in less-capable hands. Timoner spent the better part of a decade on DIG!, and finished editing the same week her first child was born.

Asked for her advice to up-and-coming documentary filmmakers, Timoner says, “Finish what you start. If you believed in it at one point, don’t give up.”

Looking back, Timoner realizes that DIG! has done much more good for its subjects than bad, even if Newcombe won’t admit it. “Generally, I think they were grateful for the attention,” she says. “They weren’t really that well known before this. I think Anton is probably very pleased to be acknowledged.”

>> DIG! celebrates its Miami premiere at the Bill Cosford Cinema on Friday, Jan. 28. Director Ondi Timoner will answer questions after the first showing at 8 p.m. Other screenings are scheduled throughout the weekend. Contact the Cosford for showtimes.

Shawn Wines can be contacted at s.wines@umiami.edu.