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Rock doc digs deeper into battle of the bands

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Times Staff Writer

Ondi Timoner’s documentary “DIG!” chronicles the long-standing love-hateship between Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols and Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The movie, which was seven years in the making, plays like a mid-’90s “Amadeus.”

It began rather less promisingly, as an MTV-bound account of 10 bands trying to break into the music business. Though its subject matter is supposedly the personal and professional trajectories of the disciplined, focused Taylor -- who narrates the film -- and the highly unstable former heroin addict Newcombe, “DIG!” is really about all the sad and funny things that happen at the intersection between art and commerce.

In 1996, Timoner was shooting an industry showcase for music executives at the Viper Room, a formality that was to have resulted in a record deal for the neo-psychedelic Brian Jonestown Massacre, when Newcombe picked a fistfight with a bandmate onstage and blew the deal. After capturing this amazing feat of self-sabotage on camera, Timoner agreed to Newcombe’s suggestion that she ditch the other bands and instead make a movie about just two: BJM (which, in a great Spinal Tap moment, an A & R executive and longtime supporter calls “the greatest ‘60s revival band since the ‘60s”), and a band from Portland called the Dandy Warhols.

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Awarded the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance, “DIG!” has the distinction of being the first long-term case study of rock-star aspirations in a post-MTV world.

While cheerfully embracing the join-a-band-or-make-a-film ethos of the early ‘90s San Francisco-Seattle-Portland slacker triangle, the Dandy Warhols never seemed to stray too far from their core middle-class values. (“We’re the most well-adjusted band in America!” they brag when they realize all of their parents are still married.)

Newcombe didn’t choose his parents as wisely. In on-camera interviews, his mother defends her decision to leave a teenage Anton in state custody after he is arrested for violating curfew. His father, who had a history of schizophrenia, was an alcoholic. A year into filming, he killed himself on Anton’s birthday.

In the eight years since Timoner started shooting, the Dandies have stayed together and carved out a career. (They’re huge in Europe.) The BJM, which has had a band-member turnover rate of roughly 6.25 new members per year, has yet to sign to a major label. (They’re big in Japan.)

Yet even while luxuriating in their success (“We all have a car, a job and a home, and half the band’s married”), the Dandies reflexively play Salieri to Newcombe’s psycho-Mozart. Commercialism may rule the music industry, but the notion of the self-destructive genius still holds artists in its thrall. Newcombe plays 50 instruments and can put out an album in the time it takes most people to fold their laundry, and even as the Dandies play European stadiums, the successful band keeps solemnly hailing their rival as a tragic genius. Not surprisingly, Newcombe has objected to Timoner’s portrayal. On his website, he points out that the director stopped shooting his band years before she stopped shooting the Dandies, and calls the result “a Jerry Springer-like vilification.” “DIG!” does come across as the story of a nice band that played by the rules and succeeded, and a druggy band of “boys from abusive, broken homes” who broke the rules and failed.

The really damning (with faint praise, anyway) picture that emerges is of the music industry, especially the Dandy’s frustrating dealings with Capitol Records -- and for that reason alone, “DIG!” should be required viewing for youngsters thinking about a music career. It’s a great reminder to be careful what you wish for. You just might get a $400,000 video directed by David LaChapelle.

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‘DIG!’

MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Drug use, partial nudity, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Anton Newcombe...Himself

Courtney Taylor...Himself

An Interloper Films, Palm Pictures and Sundance Channel presentation, released by Palm Pictures. Writer-producer-director Ondi Timoner. Cinematographers Ondi Timoner, Vasco Lucas Nunes, David Timoner. Edited by Ondi Timoner. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica, Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223. Filmmaker Ondi Timoner in person at 7:30 and 10 p.m. screenings, today and Saturday.

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