And what an odd, unique relationship this duo shares. Initially, Teutonic Taylor (who has the salacious, square-jawed face of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry) hails Newcombe as an idol. But strangeness seeps into the mix when Dandy Warhols are picked up by Capitol Records and begin a mass-appeal ascent of garish, $400,000 video shoots and other upscale perks. In what appears to be an odd mix of jealousy and contempt for Taylor’s newfound fame, Newcombe sends the Dandies threateningly ominous boxes of shotgun shells and releases resentful singles like, “Not If You Were the Last Dandy On Earth.”
Ultimately, steely-eyed, temperamental Newcombe personifies uncompromising, independent rock, refusing to bow down to commercialism. Shunning such basic human priorities as income, hygiene, or interpersonal skills, the obsessed muso comes across as a rock ‘n roll mad scientist ranting against the ‘bean-counters’ running the industry. In one scene, he tweaks knobs in primitive basement studios to perfect his ‘art,’ while unkempt sideburns sprout from his cheeks like intrusive ivy taking over a garden plot.
When asked if Newcombe would be open to the idea of psychotropic medications to stabilize his notorious moods, Timoner shakes her head. “He wouldn’t,” she insists. “I think he feels that it would take away his edge. He refuses a place to live, know what I mean? He refuses anything that might stabilize him. I remember at Sundance, someone stood up at the Q & A and said, ‘It’s wrong that he doesn’t take psychotropic drugs! He’s a danger to society! It’s irresponsible!’ And I’m like, well, it’s hard because a lot of artists are scared to take psychotropic drugs. On the other hand, (guitarist) Jeff Davies is no longer in the band, because Anton hit him in the head with a sock full of rocks and metal.”
Similar Newcombe-instigated blowups and outbursts, such as a knock-down, drag-out onstage fight depicted in DIG’s opening scenes, have created a revolving-door membership, with over 40 musicians coming and going since BJM’s inception in 1990. The fallout has been tragic. Long-suffering former manager David Deresinksi – who seems to weather and age before our eyes – is shown patiently coordinating cross-country tours and bailing the band out of one fiasco after another. At a New York gig at legendary punk club CBGB’s, Newcombe rewards such selfless generosity by calling Deresinski a leech. “I hate him,” proclaims the musician of his manager, before later firing the long-time caretaker. Down the road, other dedicated musicians like tambourine player Joel Gion and Lennon-esque bassist Matt Hollywood will also drop from the roster after receiving similarly rough treatment.
Why do people tolerate Newcombe? For one thing, he’s a startlingly prolific songwriter, capable of churning out three albums a year. And he’s cheap. The musician boasts that BJM’s album ‘Thank God for Mental Illness’ cost only $17 to make. Most importantly, BJM’s music is widely hailed as brilliant and ahead of its time. Even those who can’t stand Newcombe’s renegade instability admit that he makes great records. Nonetheless, this often-homeless son of a schizophrenic father (who committed suicide before completion of ‘DIG!’) snuffs out any hopes of commercial success by sabotaging record industry showcases and alienating major labels. One admirer sums up Newcombe’s tortured duality perfectly by stating, ‘He can’t integrate his mystical vision with his messed up personality. He’s torn between commercial success and credibility.’
Meanwhile, Dandy Warhols singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor is presented as an equally talented icon, but one who balances his own musical integrity with a grudging respect for the commercial side of the coin. He’s more self-conscious and well balanced than Newcombe (which might explain why he was chosen as narrator for “DIG!”), revealing a natural songwriter’s knack for catchy verses that stick in the cerebrum (“Bohemian Like You”). Taylor and bandmates Zia McCabe (keyboards), Peter Holmstrom (guitar), and Brent DeBoer (drums) are also savvy enough to transform an old machine shop in downtown Portland into the Odditorium, a quarter-block Dandy headquarters complete with stage, library, kitchen, and dining room.
“DIG!” is thick with telling details and the atmosphere of a tale unfolding before viewers’ eyes. Unlike early music documentaries such as Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same,” which reeked of pretension with dream sequences and crotch-level stage shots, “DIG!” feels real. It’s dense and fast-paced, the “Goodfellas” of rock docs. Timoner confirms that editing seven years’ worth of footage was a nightmare of migraine-inducing proportions. “I just started editing three and a half years into it,” she explains, “because I knew I had such a mountain to climb. DIG the title ties in with the sixties term, but also with archeology. I’m not the kind of filmmaker that sets out to ‘catch’ this or that. I just take whatever sticks to the screen.
“I had a five-hour cut last July, and I said, there’s nothing more I can cut from this. It was a real difficult process. The idea of a DVD helped me a lot. Also, I dreaded it – I was so tired of it. But the power of the footage and the characters held up and I wanted it to see the light of day. It’s a matter of killing your children. You have to knock stuff out, even though you want to keep it all in there.”
Timoner is a Yale graduate whose relaxed, natural presence is a refreshing contrast to the insincere posturing practiced by many new directors promoting their wares on the festival circuit. She’s laid-back and earthy. Rather than dump her family at some hotel room while schmoozing with journalists, the filmmaker conducts her interview with family in tow. “DIG!” cinematographer and significant other Vasco Nunes enters the room with Joaquim, the filmmaking couple’s newborn son (born the same week that postproduction wrapped on “DIG!”). “He’s been to ten different states and numerous countries,” boasts Nunes of the smiling infant.
Joaquim’s appearance symbolizes the huge life transitions that Timoner experienced during the sprawling seven-year period in which “DIG!” was filmed. Her brother David, who also shot footage for the film, bailed out before its completion to start a family. Then Timoner became pregnant. Meanwhile, the busy mother-to-be found herself sprinting in a last-minute race to submit “DIG!” to Sundance on time. “The Sundance deadline and the baby deadline kind of coincided,” she explains, with Joaquim nursing at her breast. “We didn’t think we had a shot in hell of getting in, so we figured we might as well go for it.
“Our film is a mix of many different types of footage – anything we could get ahold of over the years. I thought ‘DIG!’ was probably too ragtag for Sundance. I heard that one higher-up at the festival actually felt that way. But the general programming team at Sundance really got behind it. We turned it in late, actually. There was no way to get it in by the deadline. So we turned it in the week of my due date. Then we proceeded to forget about it. We had a baby, and our lives completely changed. It seemed like such a long time ago. Then here we were, getting into Sundance. The nuttiest thing of all, however, was for our movie to win. That was entirely unexpected.”
Now that both of Timoner’s babies have arrived, perhaps she can relax. Then again, maybe the “DIG!” saga is just getting started. Slated for domestic release by Palm Pictures in October, the film is already a hot topic on Internet film forums. Fans of BJM have pointed out a noteworthy observation: while Newcombe’s band is filmed until only 1997, Dandy Warhols are tracked into 2003. “This leads the viewer to believe that I fell off the earth in a drugged-out downward spiral of insanity,” proclaims Newcombe on his web site. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. I quit heroin over 5 years ago, thank God, and have been more productive than ever making albums and touring all over the world.”
The Massacre man is also peeved about how a mid-tour, on-the-road arrest in Georgia was portrayed. “DIG!” shows us good ol’ boy patrolmen opening a car door, before what appears to be contraband falls to the ground. The scene gives viewers the impression that Newcombe is busted for drug possession, while he claims that the drugs were actually Timoner’s. He clarifies that while he did spend time in jail following the incident, the arrest stemmed from a far less dramatic charge – his possession of an expired driver’s license.
Timoner isn’t broken up over the fact that her film’s star is also her biggest critic. “Anton is like a shark,” she observes, “swimming against the current. Someone said, (“DIG!”) wouldn’t be good if he didn’t fight against it. And his ex-girlfriend said, ‘He’s a megalomaniac – come on. Would he have been happy with any variation of the film?’ It was hard on me at first, but I’ve gotten thick skin about it. Eventually, one day, he may thank me for the film.”
Let’s not hold our breath.