by Brian Varney
When Dig! was first conceived, it seems its purpose was merely to document the relationship of two bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. While it does this well, it becomes apparent very quickly that The Brian Jonestown Massacre will be the film’s focus: Perhaps because rock geeks are drawn to the myth of the damaged genius, maybe because BJTM leader Anton Newcombe is the most charismatic figure in the film, or maybe because they’re simply the better band.
Having said that, the Dandy Warhols, and their relationship with BJTM, are central to Dig! Although the bands share musical roots (mainly a love of psychedelic rock) and start out as friends, the paths of the two bands begin to diverge very early in the movie’s 107 minutes. The shrewder and more careerist Warhols sign quickly to a major label and attempt, through the usual channels of expensive, high-profile music videos and sleek, heavily-produced albums, to break into the mainstream. BJTM shun this approach at every possible juncture, going so far as to sabotage important gigs. We see a particular show set up specifically to showcase the band to a major label A&R rep which ends literally in shambles, the band members fist-fighting each other and audience members onstage.
And, as I said earlier, there’s that irresistible “mad genius” bait. Anton Newcombe, whether consciously or not, plays into every cliché you know about this sort of person, whether it be Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Skip Spence, or someone else like them. As someone comments in the film, Newcombe is truly a born musician in that he is literally incapable of doing anything else. Spend five minutes watching him in Dig! and you’ll laugh out loud at the thought of him hanging up his guitar and getting a day job. It’s literally not a possibility.
So, in the end, the two bands that are supposed to be the focus of Dig! provide more of a study in contrasts than anything else. BJTM embody the down and dirty rock and roll lifestyle, living in a filthy hovel of a band house and barely surviving, while the Dandy Warhols tour Europe and play to huge festival audiences. When the Dandys want to harness the rock ‘n’ roll image, they merely stage a photoshoot in the BJTM band house the morning after a party, literally stumbling over unconscious bodies and marveling at the squalor.
Which is preferable, the film seems to ask? The answer to this question, like that of most questions in this world, is unknowable. Dig! presents convincing arguments for both sides, for although everyone in the film, including the Dandys themselves, expressing varying degrees of awe over Anton’s talents and BJTM’s records, the film ends with BJTM in shambles, most of the core members having been driven away by Anton’s insanity, and Anton himself on the way to jail for assaulting an audience member, while the members of the Dandys, still a functioning band, seem happy both personally and professionally.