Saturday evening capped an explosive ten days for filmmaker Ondi Timoner. Her documentary, DiG!, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival just hours after the film had been picked up for theatrical distribution by music magnate Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures and for cable by the Sundance Channel.
What was most remarkable about the win, however, was the subject matter of Timoner’s film — a seven-year labor of love that chronicled the vision quest of two West Coast bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. Amid a crowded field of docs that took on everything from the brothels of Calcutta to the aftermath of the Rosenberg executions, Timoner’s powerful examination of BJM leader Anton Newcombe’s manic self-destruction as his friend Courtney Taylor led the Dandy Warhols to broader success, transcended the rock doc genre.
Timoner, 30, a musician herself, began working on a concept for a film called The Cut, which would chronicle the trials of ten Los Angeles-based bands on a quest for major-label success. The labels all signed on, and Timoner had begun filming when a friend of hers played a tape by a San Francisco band named for the doomed guitarist who’d pushed the Rolling Stones to introduce Eastern mysticism into their balls-out rock & roll.
“I went up to meet the band at a gig they were playing,” Timoner says. “The first footage you see in the film is them outside, and they’d showed up late for the gig and they weren’t allowed to play. They just were bitching and standing outside wanting to play . . . and immediately the energy of the band hit me — they were either going to play the game on their own terms or not play it at all. And that was really refreshing. After being in L.A. and documenting a bunch of bands who were like, ‘Ooh, what can we be to make the industry like us?’ the BJM didn’t give a shit.”
Two weeks later, the band came to L.A. for a label showcase at the Viper Room, and Timoner began to realize that she might have an even more fascinating subject on her hands. Newcombe, the self-messianic frontman, was notorious for ruining his performances at the hands and mercy of his bandmates. The showcase was no exception.
“There were a ton of labels there, and they were in a fistfight and on the floor by the fifth song. And then Anton declared he was going to lead a revolution in the music business and do it with the Dandy Warhols. I thought, maybe I should listen to this guy. So I went up to Portland to meet the Dandys, and they were such a contrast, yet at the same time shared a certain uncompromising quality. These were real rock & roll bands. I always felt like I’d missed the boat on the Sixties and now I finally found people who were gonna fuckin’ do it right — the way they want to do it.”
Often using a spy-cam planted in her hat, Timoner wound up chronicling the morphing friendship of Newcombe and Taylor, which exploded and eventually imploded over the weight of their collective egos. But it was Newcombe’s mental instability that served as a metaphor for the tainted success so many bands reach for and never find.
“After a couple of years of watching Anton destroy every commercial opportunity he had, it became clear to me that the revolution wasn’t going to happen.”
But through that destruction, Timoner found her hook. “It became more fascinating to me to look at what success actually is,” she says. “Whether integrity, and creative genius, and going to the far outer reaches of your mind allows you to show up at the meeting the next day. Or whether doing business and shaking hands and accepting invitations to expensive dinners basically ruins your ability to really get out there, to be as prolific as Anton.”
Timoner’s film never tries to explain Newcombe, or even explain why his bandmates chose masochism over creative freedom. At various points every member of the Brian Jonestown Massacre leaves the band after an explosive fight with Newcombe, only to return again out of a love for the music they made together. By contrast, the Dandys’ Taylor says at one point, “We realized our parents are still married. We are the most well adjusted band in America”
Taylor has never made bones about his band’s desire to take over the world, even when no one wanted to listen. “I sneeze and hits come out,” he says at one point. But juxtaposed against the bi-polarity of friend and eventual nemesis Newcombe, Taylor appears to be nothing more than a harbinger of positivity.
“[Taylor] has a need for recognition bigger than the moon,” Timoner says. “But Anton is the star of the film. Courtney hasn’t wanted to be in the same room with Anton for years, but he’s still so quick to talk about how important Anton’s music has been at every step in his development as an artist and as a musician. There is something really wonderful about that, because it still is about that passion.”
After seven years and 1,500 hours of footage, Timoner was ready to walk away from the project. While she never allowed herself to become part of the story, Newcombe’s self-destruction took on patterns that at times became too painful to continue documenting. “When Anton became a heroin addict there were times when I thought he was going to die and it would all be over,” she says. “There were times that were so dark that I didn’t film. I realized a long time ago that intervening with Anton was not my job.”
A deal was cut a number of years ago with MTV to turn Timoner’s footage into a reality show about two bands: one who grabbed the brass ring and held on, and one that fell under the weight of its own ennui. But after editing a number of episodes, Timoner realized she wanted to do something bigger with the film. She’s finally getting her chance.