When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But when you’re on the road with Anton Newcombe, the stability-impaired guru behind Brian Jonestown Massacre, such advice doesn’t apply. Unless, of course, you’ve got a death wish. Or in Ondi Timoner’s case, the obsessive desire to complete DIG!, her layered, ultra-intimate music documentary that won the Sundance Film Festival’s 2004 Grand Jury Prize.
Timoner’s mission to document the intertwined, parallel histories of two upcoming bands – Bay Area-based Brian Jonestown Massacre (or BJM) and Portland’s Dandy Warhols – was a seven-year slog through 1,500 hours of footage that found her broke, homeless, and even arrested. But it’s her encounters with wild-eyed, guitar-strumming brunette Newcombe that ignite “DIG!”
A prolific musician who plays over fifty instruments and churns out three records per year, the BJM mastermind is either hailed as a misunderstood retro-rock messiah or a sick maniac, depending on whom you speak with. In “DIG!”, Timoner’s camera immortalizes plenty of moments that confirm both viewpoints. Whether he’s punting the forehead of an audience member, or twiddling studio knobs during an intense recording session, Newcombe comes across as a scary, unpredictable force of nature nourished by sitars, tunics, and – on some occasions – smack.
It’s easy to understand how such a fierce personality might perceive “DIG!” as an incriminating, flawed work. When the opinionated songwriter recently vented his disappointment with the film via a BJM web site posting, his critique wasn’t surprising. In fact, it was downright Newcombe-esque. “I was shocked and let down when I saw the end result,” he scribes. “Several years of our hard work was reduced at best to a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context, and at worst bold faced lies and misrepresentation of fact.”
Talking with Timoner about such bitter feedback before a screening of “DIG!” at the Seattle International Film Festival, she heaves a weary sigh. “The other day,” recalls the 30-year old director, “somebody told me that Anton had called me exploitative. They asked me what I thought of that. I said I’d like a part of his record sales. I paid for the movie myself, and I worked hard to portray him as less maniacal than he actually is. He remembers a lot of things differently from how they happened.”
“After he kicked the guy in the head,” she continues, describing a scene late in the film where Newcombe assaults a heckler from the stage, “he asked if I would show the footage to the cops, thinking it would exonerate him.” But there would be no exoneration. Sadly, Newcombe’s assault resulted in both his arrest and a restraining order barring the musician from seeing his newborn son.
It’s unlikely Timoner would ever have dreamt that “DIG!” might become the controversial, award-winning, cinematic spearhead of a new movement in documentary films, when she started the project in 1995. The reality television craze – and our new millenium lean towards documentary films – had not quite materialized. “Survivor” wouldn’t surface on television for another five years, and “Hoop Dreams” was still the highest-grossing documentary film of the time (pulling in $7,830,611, considerably less than today’s Michael Moore-produced ‘doc-busters’ like Fahrenheit 9/11).
After directing such activist-minded documentaries as “Voices from Inside Time,” “Nature of the Beast,” and “Dam Nation,” Timoner struggled to produce “The Cut.” A TV-aimed series concerning 10 unsigned bands attempting to acquire major-label record deals, her project initially perked the interest of MTV. However, after director and network butted heads over the show’s direction and ultimately parted ways (MTV later came out with their own version of “The Cut”), Timoner focused on taking the two most charismatic bands she had met and revamped her approach. Entertaining the notion of a feature film, she committed to tracking both groups for one year (ultimately, her camera would run for much longer – seven years in total). “I had originally contacted BJM (for “The Cut”). Then Anton told me to go meet the Dandy Warhols. He told me about the whole revolution they were going to start together.”
“DIG!” follows both Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre to capture the inevitable war that popular musicians wage between art and commerce. Timoner trudges alongside these two sixties-flavored retro-rock bands as they don tunics, do blow, damage apartments (and each other), and work their audio magic. But “DIG” is really about two men – Newcombe and admiring friend-come-distrusting rival Courtney Taylor, who is helmsman for the glossier, more commercially accessible Dandies. At the core of her odyssey is the passive- aggressive rivalry between these two fiercely competitive talents.
The interview continues in part two of ONDI TIMONER: DIGGING FOR GOLD>>>