Band rockumentaries can typically be watched in two ways: for those unfamiliar with the film's subject, it's usually an insightful peak into the world of professional musicians. For fans, however, these movies can induce what I like to call the Wizard of Oz effect. By the end of it, you'll have seen almost everything behind the curtain, though you might wish it could've all remained a wonderful, grandiose mystery.
In any case, Of Montreal is under the spotlight in The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, which is screening at FilmBar August 12 and August 14.
Originally called Song Dynasties, director Jason Miller's biopic on the popular indie band has seemingly almost been made more than once. His IMDB cites him as the director of 2009's Of Montreal: In a Fit of Hercynian Prig, Oculi, though as far as I can tell that film never made wide release, if it screened at all. After some Kickstarter fundraising, Miller's TPIAGA is finally out.
Analyzing footage from the very early years of the band's formation interlaced with modern interviews from former and current members as well as musicians like Foxygen, Ariel Pink, and MGMT, the film is pretty much as comprehensive of a look at the band as you can possibly get. For a band that's created 12 albums in 16 years, toured the world several times, and has included more than 20 different people, that's no small feat.
From the very moment the film opens, it's clear frontman Kevin Barnes will be the focal point. For a fan, if you want to view him as the mostly-nude genius musician and performer he seems to be, you probably shouldn't watch past the first 30 minutes. That's because the early days, which include the band's start as a solo, then two-, then three-piece act on Bar None touring with Neutral Milk Hotel and even some of the later performances up until about Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?'s release, seem like your standard band story. They tour, they live together, they get in tiffs, but they work it out.
You can almost pinpoint the moment the tone changes with the live performance of the movie's title track, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal." The hypnotizing, dizzying melody underneath Barnes' darkly poetic, visceral lyrics set the tone for the film's second half. It tells the story you see painted on screen of Barnes' depression swelling while he lived in Norway with his wife and newborn child.
While the band's fame grows with their fanbase, which includes celebs like Susan Sarandon and past collaborators Solange Knowles and Janelle Monae, the band's stage performances get wilder and wilder. Live horses, vulgar costumes, staged suicides, and Vaudevillian influences exemplify the madhouse acid trip stage show that has come to define the band. And don't worry, just like a real Of Montreal show, you get to see Kevin Barnes naked.
While all of that is fun, the wild ride abruptly halts right around the time the band's newest album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, is made. In Barnes' attempt to create a new sound, he decides to essentially kick everyone else out of the band (seemingly without telling them) and move forward with a set of new musicians and a folk-inspired sound.
At this point, it's pretty hard to not draw comparisons between Rebecca Cash, the band's new vocalist, and Yoko Ono, but that's beside the point. What the point really is is that this band is Kevin Barnes. There's no "I" in Of Montreal but there's certainly no room for anyone in the band aside from him, not even his brother David, who toured for years at the band's artistic director, orchestrating the elaborate stage performances for which the band was best known.
The film's message, if it were meant to have one at all, is that Barnes' explosive, manic creativity is really the only thing that matters to the band. While this seemingly has turned almost every former member of the band bitter, and rightfully so, it's almost like Barnes doesn't notice how his actions effect others or he just completely doesn't care.
Past keyboardist Dottie Alexander probably puts it best that Barnes fully negates the past and vilifies it and everyone involved with it in order to move forward. Get it? Like the past is a grotesque animal. In the end, though, Barnes analyzes his catalog of music, and he comments that he has probably "made so many things that nobody could care anymore." He says, despite this, he is compelled to create and can't stop. It doesn't hurt anyone, he explains, except maybe the ones who love him.
Is this movie Of Montreal's Dig!, the 2004 documentary about The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre? While it does attempt to paint Barnes as an Anton Newcombe-like creative and alternatively destructive force, it doesn't quite carry the emotional power of Ondi Timoner's documentary. The story is interesting because it is an interesting story, not really because of the cut and dry way that the film presents it. In order to tell the full story, there's almost too much crammed into one movie. The ability to pause and feel anything for anyone in the band isn't really there, but instead you're whisked from one moment to the next in urgency.
The Past Is a Grotesque Animal is screening at FilmBar on Tuesday, August 12 and Thursday, August 14, with both screenings beginning at 7:30 p.m. The events are 21 and over. For tickets and more information, visit the FilmBar website.
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