I was going to suggest I write about Shut Up And Play The Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem‘s final days of existence, from a dispassionate perspective. Then, I realised that was an impossible task. Then, I realised that was a pointless exercise. I don’t know what it would be like to watch this film without even a shred of knowledge about this band, and its big greying human centre James Murphy, and I don’t want to know. You might be able to appreciate it for its cinematography, borne of several celebrated visual artists; you might admire the way it cuts between thrilling in-concert footage and a snarky, nasal interview between Murphy and the critic Chuck Klosterman. But you couldn’t feel the darling buds of tears form in your mind’s eye. At least, I doubt it. In any case, no-one deserves to not have LCD Soundsystem in their lives. If you learn of this film but know nothing about the band behind it, for goodness sake make amends.
Typically, in this age, films about bands and musicians are vanity projects or cash-cows. Shut Up… is not such a film. Its directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, came to Murphy with an idea and, together, they developed that idea into a better one.
So we get an incredibly human character-study of Murphy, the morning after the night before, trimming his inimitable beard and cleaning out his coffee machine. These subtly deflate the viewer’s perception of him: just as Murphy worshipped David Bowie as an alien from Mars who couldn’t possibly wake up with a pain in his foot, so do fans of LCD Soundsystem believe their hero to be superhuman in his accomplishments and traits.
And in lockstep with this touching portrait come exhilarating chunks of performance from their last ever concert, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The songs they play have never sounded better: they have the punkish energy fans loved, but are mixed retrospectively by Murphy, also a distinguished recording engineer, himself. The camera flits between overhead shots of fans partying like they know it’s the last time—one repeated, lingering close-up of a teenager, bawling his eyes out, elicited laughter from the audience—and extended shots of members of the extended live band, fiddling with synthesizers and scraping the guts of electric guitars. Pat Mahoney’s drumming, always metronomic, always spirited, is not foregrounded but plays a crucial role from the sidelines, keeping everyone else from freaking out and imploding. At certain moments, the visuals are so sympathetic to the lyrical content of Murphy’s songs, you realise what an obvious candidate for a film his band is. The clearest example is during “All My Friends”: when Murphy asks, “Where are your friends tonight?”, the camera responds by shifting its gaze from the stage to the adoring crowd, one seething mass of togetherness.
If you thought LCD Soundsystem were all about partying, you haven’t spent much time studying James Murphy. A self-confessed failure till he was thirty, he struggled through suburbia, punk bands, lucrative DJ sets, always yearning to step out from the shadows and do something memorable in his own right. The original incarnation of LCD Soundsystem took the form of “Losing My Edge”, a painfully tragic account of younger people being painfully hip. Soon after, Murphy assembled a band of friends to play his music at parties—the best LCD Soundsystem covers band, if you will.
His is a band that never set out to start somewhere, but which wrapped up in concrete the place they would end. In one of the more bearable fragments of the Chuck Klosterman interview, Murphy is pressed to suggest what will be remembered as his band’s defining failure. After a few false starts, he delivers his answer: ending the band—maybe. Murphy feared his own justification for drawing the curtains on LCD Soundsystem would objectively be deemed inadequate. After all, he had previously said a purpose of the band was to show young people how live music could still excite, and here he was, in 2011, still showing those upstarts who was boss. In making young listeners bow down to him, Murphy failed to inspire them to ape his own act. In this context, retirement might be seen as failing to take the greatest risks imaginable.
“I was 38 and I decided to make another record. I blinked, and I was 41…if I blink again, I’ll be 50.”
I wish I could remember more of the clever things Murphy says, whether to friends on the phone, or to Klosterman, sat in an Italian restaurant. Maybe this is Klosterman’s fault: he is the kind of pretentious critic who asks questions and then, as if grabbing the microphone from his interviewee, proceeds to answer them himself. This might make for good written interviews, but it makes for pretty aggravating cinema. However, I recognise that, on occasion, Klosterman’s questions prompt Murphy to make a perceptive, insightful remark that perfectly ushers in the next segment of the film. For example, near the end, Murphy says he likes songs “that come from a particular place”—an ideal introduction to the haunting “Someone Great”, which ends with…no, I won’t spoil it.
Another theme close to Murphy’s heart which gets a fair airing during the film is that of family. We see Murphy addressing his brother, sister and nephews from on stage. We see him greet musical acolytes (Arcade Fire join the band to sing backing vocals on “North American Scum”; the comedian and a cappella musician Reggie Watts skits through “45:33 (II)”) like soulmates. During the many songs which are shown almost in entirety, there is much embracing and unity. It’s another sign Lovelace and Southern, who also made No Distance Left To Run, the film about Blur’s fleeting rebirth, have done their homework. In conception, the film’s strands seem irreconcilable—shoehorning a four-hour concert into a documentary about the end of a band. In execution, the way the film pulls back from the humdrum and then lurches us in media res works well.
Prior to watching Shut Up…, the only comparable film I had seen was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which follows Talking Heads at their peak over a three-night residency of the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. There are numerous similarities, from the chiaroscuro shots of the bands’ frontmen, to the obsessive highlighting of complementary percussion and amp- and keyboard-fiddling. And, of course, Talking Heads are one of the clear antecedents to LCD Soundsystem.
But Shut Up… is its own kind of film, with its nonlinear narrative (the film starts amidst a sheet of gravelly white noise, which, any dedicated fan will know, is the ‘musical’ cover for the transition between two closing-stages songs, “Yeah” and “Someone Great”) and emphasis on the pedestrian parts of so-called rock stars’ lives (making coffee, taking the dog Petunia for walks). The best way of describing it is to say it is a very LCD Soundsystem film, so in keeping with the spirit of the band and the artist that, as I suggested earlier, watching it without having heard any of their music is pointless and indefensible. The fact the music in it is so impeccably mixed and really benefits from being blasted out of a cinema is significant, if only because you will want to get out of your seat and dance.
Shut Up And Play The Hits, by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is produced by Pulse Films and distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and will be released in the summer of 2012.
Picture credits: Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace.