By Mark Bell | November 11, 2008

Generally when you hear news of a formally popular band getting back together after years of being slowly marginalized, it feels like a paycheck move. Get the old band mates together, play a handful of one-offs, string together all the popular hits in an hour or so of performing and then enjoy your time as the money rolls in. This is not however, remotely, what the Smashing Pumpkins did when they got back together in 2007 for a pair of concert residencies at the Orange Peel in Asheville, NC and the famed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, CA.

“Smashing Pumpkins: If All Goes Wrong” is two things, on two discs. Disc One is predominantly a documentary entitled “If All Goes Wrong,” detailing the band’s ups and downs as they work their way through the residencies. Disc Two is a concert film, “The Fillmore Residency,” utilizing performances and footage collected over 5 nights of the Pumpkins’ 11 sold-out performances at the Fillmore. If you’re a fan of the Pumpkins, you were going to buy this for Disc Two regardless, so I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the concert footage. I do want to focus on “If All Goes Wrong,” however, as it is easily one of the better musical documentaries I’ve seen this year (and I watch TONS of music docs).

For one, “If All Goes Wrong” works due to the access given the filmmakers into the life of the Pumpkins, and leader Billy Corgan in particular. Instead of being a bunch of talking heads explaining the relevancy of the re-formed Pumpkins, we get to see the experience of relevancy as the band works through it. Starting off at the 8 night Orange Peel residency in North Carolina, the event is met with optimism and fun. Corgan is reflective on the events, but also is inspired, writing songs that the band then performs later on that evening. And while there are a handful of classic tunes thrown in, the majority of material is untested and fresh. In other words, this isn’t a band looking to cash-in, this is a band looking for their identity again.

And it’s a valid question. The re-formed Pumpkins only have singer/guitarist Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in return roles. Former bassist D’arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha aren’t involved. And you don’t get much info as to why, so if you don’t know the history of the band, then you’re not going to get enlightened here, though there is a moment where Corgan explains certain performance choices based upon unsettled issues between himself, Iha and the public perceptions of said songs. So 50% of the band that people remember is gone, and three new faces are introduced (guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes and keyboardist Lisa Harrington).

As the doc moves on, so too does the band, changing residency location to San Francisco, where the fans are more numerous and also, at first, less accommodating than the North Carolina crowds (a point driven home when the band realizes that their music experiments, including a 30+ minute song entitled “Gossamer,” seem to be causing the fans to leave in droves). Audience expectations continually clash with the band’s, and the tone turns darker and more depressing. Suddenly the fun residency experience is a frustrating one, as everyone comes to grips with the possibility that no one wants the Smashing Pumpkins to be what they are today, only that they continue to be what they were ten years ago. In other words, artistic growth losing the battle to nostalgia… or it would, if the band wasn’t so damned defiant in the face of being marginalized by their own fanbase.

As I mentioned earlier, the documentary is stellar in its access to the residency experience, and the candid nature of the band members, particularly Corgan. A polarizing figure in music, the film offers new insight into his process, and a bit of makes him tick, though that isn’t as interesting, to me at least, as the various questions about artistic relevancy, growth and value that arise as the experience rolls along. In that regard, this film could’ve been about any artist, and that is where, for my money, the true value lives.

If you’re a fan of the band, you’ve already ordered a copy of this DVD. Whether you like it depends on your willingness to allow the band to evolve. If nothing else, however, it’s worth checking out “If All Goes Wrong.”

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