"SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS"
Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
Dear readers, I am about to pose a hypothetical question to all of you that I would wish for you to think about seriously. Regardless of your individual station in life, especially in regards to your personal finances, would you completely walk away from your chosen occupation if you could? And beyond that, what would you do when it was all over?
That very concept forms the heart and soul of Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace's simultaneously dazzling and intensely pensive documentary, "Shut Up And Play The Hits," a film which chronicles 48 hours in the life of musician James Murphy, creator and leader of LCD Soundsystem, as he prepares for and experiences the initial post-show afterglow and/or emotional fallout of his band's final performance at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011, the epic swan song before he retires the unit completely. The non-linear film showcases not only the euphoric concert sequences but also the sharp contrast of the quietness afterwards as well as interview sequences between Murphy and pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman.
As with Dave Grohl's outstanding "Sound City," Southern and Lovelace also ensure that their film exists as much more than a document of a band's final concert performance. Through the somewhat inscrutable figure of James Murphy himself, we are given a window into the progress and pains of reaching middle age and therefore, we are given a mirror into ourselves as we all age. After a glowingly well received showing at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 as well as an exclusive nationwide one night only theatrical screening during the summer of 2012, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" is now available for you to see on DVD and Blu-Ray formats in a gorgeously presented 3 disc collection which contains the film, a nice amount of bonus featurettes and most wondrously, the entire three and a half hour concert itself. Southern and Lovelace have delivered a film that is bound to make you jump out of our seats while simultaneously becoming an experience that is emotionally resonant. Seek it out and play it loudly!
Truth be told, my relationship with LCD Soundsystem is fair at best. While they are a band that I have enjoyed every time I have heard them and I do even possess two of their three albums, they don't tend to end up as frequent musical choices to listen to, and not for any particular reasons either. That said, they have intrigued me greatly and when James Murphy did announce his band's demise, shortly before the release of "This Is Happening," the band's 2010 and final album, my curiosity was piqued tremendously. I was extremely curious as to why Murphy would want to end something that had become so extremely successful within the indie rock world and was also just on the brink of breaking through into the mainstream. I mean--why stop now? The album hadn't been released yet. There was no tour at that time. And yet, Murphy seemed to be adamant that for LCD Soundsystem, this was to be a most finite existence. With "Shut Up And Play The Hits," Southern and Lovelace try to shed some light on the subject and the results proved to be provocative and multi-layered.
As a concert film, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" feels like a hybrid between Director Jonathan Demme's classic "Stop Making Sense" (1984) starring Talking Heads and certainly Director Martin Scorsese's extraordinary "The Last Waltz" (1978), the concert film which chronicled the final performance of The Band on Thanksgiving night 1976. In fact, this film could have also been titled, "The Last Rave"! Even so, Southern and Lovelace follow the template of both films by not giving the audience any sense of history of the band in question. For fans of the respective musical units, you are more than ready, for novices, you finally get to see what the fuss was all about just as everything is about to conclude permanently.
While Grohl utilized "Sound City" to question the existence of the crucial human element in 21st century music (and society at large), "Shut Up And Play The Hits" goes a long way to show that this essential element has not been forever lost. While the LCD Soundsystem albums are largely written, produced and recorded by James Murphy on his own, and they have been classified as electronic dance rock, sonically those albums do possess a certain handmade quality as the merging of punk rock, soul, electronica and even disco music proudly displays its influences of David Bowie, the poly-rhythms of mid period Talking Heads and the nasty, raw, almost home demo funk of "Dirty Mind"/"Controversy" era Prince. Yet Murphy's artistic vision is never derivative and feels intensely singular and personal. The film's concert sequences are sharply and crisply photographed and presented and on stage, the camaraderie between Murphy and his chief co-conspirators, Nancy Whang (keyboards, synthesizers, percussion), Pat Mahoney (drums, percussion, electronic percussion) and Tyler Pope (guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, synthesizers percussion) is palpable in its obvious affection. Furthermore, and for this climactic event, the band has swelled to include an arsenal of additional musicians including a horn section and vocal choir and Murphy, clad in a somewhat ill fitting tux, stands center stage, orchestrating the event serves as the conductor.
But with the musical comparisons, the film as a whole is made of of sharp juxtapositions. The mass cacophony of joyous communion are inter-cut with scenes of solitude of striking silence. We witness the day after the performance with scenes of Murphy, and his French bulldog alone in his New York apartment with his wall of vinyl and novels. Audio segments of Murphy's conversations with Klosterman are placed over lonely imagery of Murphy riding alone in a cab. Another audio interview snippet of Murphy and Klosterman discussing the nature of pretentiousness is laid over imagery of the most mundane act of Murphy shaving his face. LCD Soundsystem's wild performance cover of Harry Nilsson's apocalyptic sounding "Jump Into The Fire" is presented with scenes of post concert revelry.
And what I loved within the film most are the wealth of stolen moments Southern and Lovelace have captured and have chosen to present in surprising ways. The sight of Murphy spontaneously breaking into tears on stage after singing "Someone Great" and the look of empathy shot his way by Whang was striking to me. Then, there are scenes after the show, where Murphy putters around his apartment and New York in his clothes from the night before, as he tours the band's office space and quietly breaks down in sobs while exploring a warehouse of the band's instruments, never to be played again.
The music of LCD Soundsystem is as intimate and introspective as the film's interview segments and then the music itself plays out upon the grand scale of a marathon farewell arena concert. The songs themselves present Murphy's anxious and self-perceived sense of futility and failure with feeling that he will never be able to achieve the artistic heights of his musical heroes. Yet, conversely, he is certainly perceptive and astute enough to realize that maybe his music has inspired his musical peers as well as the kids that make up his audience. With all of those elements, Southern and Lovelace have given to me that same sense of symbiotic symmetry that tends to capture me, dear readers. While this film is not a cultural commentary as "Sound City" became, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" is indeed more of a character study of James Murphy and therefore of all of us in the audience as well.
James Murphy struck me as being a candid and yet confounding individual. He seems to be arrogant yet reserved. Loquacious yet sharp enough to not reveal absolutely everything. He seems to be uniquely or obsessively in tune with his sense of musical relevance and overall self-consciousness and self-perception. He can shoulder an irritatingly ironic, excessively self-aware hipster status while also existing as a heart on sleeve romantic. And with all of those qualities, I guess that you can say that James Murphy mirrors each and every one of us who chooses to watch this film because can any of us ever be described with just one adjective? In regards to his role as a musician, Murphy speaks of his inspirations and how the sense of perception strongly feeds into the love one has towards an artist. How to him, David Bowie seemed as if he was not even of this Earth or even human while also realizing that Bowie puts his pants on one leg at a time and buys milk at the store just like anyone else.
With that, Southern and Lovelace, also pull back the curtain with their fly on the wall cameras to show Murphy as just a man and not as a musical deity that some may perceive him to be, especially from the awed faces we see in the Madison Square Garden audience, most notably the tear stained teenager, whose face marks the film's final image. Even a specific moment during the concert is telling as well. Near the end of the show, he thanks the audience for attending and then makes the point of ensuring them that his gratitude is not presented through a veil of irony but is indeed authentic. It struck me that this man is so self-conscious about his own sense of authenticity that he ends up being somewhat inauthentic yet you also understand that is not the impression he wishes to deliver to his fans whatsoever.
The purity of James Murphy can be seen the most in the emotional landscape he travels through as he goes through the process of saying goodbye. Yes, we have the on stage displays of emotion but again, Southern and Lovelace capture those stolen moments. For instance, before the show, Murphy is scurrying around backstage with a box of commemorative bracelets he is delivering to everyone, wishing that he is not forgetting anybody. After the concert on the following day and while on the phone with a friend, he remarks that he has not as of yet gotten in touch with two band members and he wanted to get to them before they "disappeared." This comment also struck me because on stage this collective of people clearly seemed to be enjoying each other and they are often filled with embraces for one another, but Southern and Lovelace also implode the nature of what a band can actually be. I mean--are these people friends at all? I guess this notion reminded me a bit of being in college where friendships, sometimes of serious intensity, would be formed in a class or with people through a semester and then the following semester or school year, those people would never be seen again. Such is life.
And this is where "Shut Up And Play The Hits" strikes its deepest chords as it is indeed an exploration of middle age and even mortality. At the time of the filming and concert, Murphy has arrived at the age of 41, life's midpoint, a time for taking stock of your accomplishments and failures and wondering how to move forwards while constantly looking backwards. the film's non-linear structure accomplished this very feat of
moving forwards and backwards so effectively that there was even a point during the film in which I forgot when the interview segments between Murphy and Klosterman had taken place--before or after the concert. Here is where Southern and Lovelace's film reminded me greatly of Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living In The Material World" (2011), where the past, present and future co-exist, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes with dissonance, and converging in an everlasting NOW.
With that, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" builds, grows, deepens, sustains and envelops into a loud yet graceful explorations of beginnings and endings-the ultimate juxtaposition set to a ferociously danceable beat. During this period in the movie year of 2013 where selections are scant, I would urge you to seek this film out for you may be as surprised as I was with how profoundly you may be moved just as you are jumping, sweating and dancing in blissful elation.