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Tim Grierson on the LCD Soundsystem Documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits”

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One of the best things about James Murphy, the leader of the dance-rock group LCD Soundsystem, is that he never looked the part of a rock star. A musician and DJ, he’s a burly guy in his 40s with plenty of gray hair and a kind, doughy face. If you didn’t know who he was, you’d assume he was a journalist or a writer of fan fiction — he just looked too nerdy and, frankly, normal to lead a band.

Watching (and loving) “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s final concert, I realized it was Murphy’s deceptive normalness that helped make his group’s music so special. A man with an acerbic wit and a deep love of music history, Murphy probably understood on some level that LCD Soundsystem (which started up around the turn of the century) really didn’t fit in the current landscape, no matter how beloved and critically acclaimed they were. When he decided to retire the band with some shows in New York City — culminating in a three-and-a-half-hour finale April 2, 2011 at Madison Square Garden — he was ending LCD Soundsystem’s run prematurely by choice. He wanted to go out on top, which is a laudable decision at a time when so many artists of all different stripes want to milk their notoriety for as long as they can. But as “Shut Up and Play the Hits” demonstrates, that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision — or even necessarily the right one.

The movie, which comes out on DVD on Tuesday, is structured somewhat like “The Last Waltz,” the seminal 1978 concert film that chronicled the final show of the Band. Like in that documentary, “Shut Up and Play the Hits” cuts back and forth between performances from the final concert and interviews with the artist as he muses about his own legacy. But “Shut Up and Play the Hits” in some ways cuts deeper because of the close proximity between Murphy’s offstage moments and the show itself. They include an interview with music writer Chuck Klosterman that happened a week before the final show — which, in fact, was a sort of reenactment/refinement of an interview the two men had done a year earlier but which plays out quite naturally — and footage of Murphy’s life the day after the final show. As a consequence, this is a documentary in which the highs of a concert are intertwined with the mundane uncertainty of regular life. One moment, Murphy is playing to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. The next, he’s just a normal dude walking his dog and tying up some loose ends. For a guy who only wanted to be, in his words, “New York famous” — known and respected in the music world but not someone beset by paparazzi everywhere he goes — Murphy looks like he got what he wanted out of LCD Soundsystem, returning to being Clark Kent after his stint as indie-rock’s Superman. Still, after being Superman, it must be rather odd to just be Clark Kent.

There are plenty of concert films that are little more than fan keepsakes. Peddling a polished form of “insider access,” they show snippets of the band behind the scenes, but their real purpose is to ensure one and all that the group being featured is totally awesome and that they have the best fans in the world. In other words, they’re just big advertisements that stay on message. There’s no question “Shut Up and Play the Hits” follows this formula to some extent — although Murphy didn’t direct the film, it appears that he had a certain level of creative control — but filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace dig deeper to ponder what it means to quit something you love while at the same time exploring precisely what made LCD Soundsystem a distinctive group. Combining New Wave synthesizers, dance-floor rhythms, occasional punk-rock energy, and self-deprecating, sarcastic lyrics, Murphy’s music dared to be brainier and funnier than his hipster contemporaries. But, crucially, it was also more joyous, which comes through loud and clear in “Shut Up and Play the Hits” and its superb live versions of “Dance Yrself Clean,” “All My Friends” and “North American Scum.” (If you only saw the film in the theater during its limited run, you’ll be happy to know that the DVD includes the complete final show.)

There are several cuts to audience reactions during the film — and, in a sign of the band’s hip appeal, we even see comedian/actor Aziz Ansari crowd-surfing — but for music that was often self-consciously cool, the crowd loves LCD Soundsystem without apology or irony. At the screening I attended months ago, some people in the theater laughed at the emotionally overwhelmed fans in the movie, perhaps assuming that the film was mocking them. I didn’t read it that way. Underneath Murphy’s smarts, which are also quite apparent in the offstage segments, there’s a sensitive soul — someone we’d usually expect to see behind some turntables or working in a record store who willed himself into becoming a front man, albeit an unconventional one. (Indeed, even when we see him at Madison Square Garden, you can’t quite believe that he’s the one largely responsible for all that music.) Rock music has been filled with superstars we could relate to because they seemed like regular guys — Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Grohl — and “Shut Up and Play the Hits” makes it clear that Murphy had the same sort of connection with his audience. In his modest, Bowie-worshiping, literature-loving way, he’s just like his fans, albeit immensely talented.

“Shut Up and Play the Hits” is a celebration of that legacy, but it’s also a meditation on how nothing lasts — not success, not fame, not youth. However broadly you want to define it, rock ‘n’ roll has spent its existence trying to deny (or at least delay) that eternal truth, but Murphy’s decision to pull the plug on LCD Soundsystem acknowledges that reality head-on. Murphy will one day make music in some other form. (And, as it should be noted, there have been plenty of other bands who swore they were quitting that returned for myriad reasons, some less noble than others.) But this moment in music history is now gone.

That’s why the movie’s final emotional wallop is so richly rewarding. The title “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” which is said by Arcade Fire singer Win Butler sarcastically while on stage with LCD Soundsystem, is a nod to the fact that casual fans pay to see a show so that they can enjoy the songs they know — they don’t want to be bothered with chitchat or anything else that gets in the way. But that title is doubly ironic for James Murphy’s band. For one, they weren’t a group that had a lot of big hits. (Murphy even wrote a song about this in his typically sardonic way.) For another, as strong as the movie’s musical performances are, in the end this documentary is about those moments when Murphy isn’t focusing on “the hits” but, rather, himself. The film’s heart comes from Klosterman asking him what he thinks his group’s greatest failure is. It’s in that sense that Murphy still can’t comprehend what ending his most indelible artistic endeavor will mean to him. Even when “Shut Up and Play the Hits” concludes, the question lingers in the air, but when he finally allows himself to shut up and take it all in, it’s overpowering. Rock ‘n’ roll is often about burning out or fading away. With “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” Murphy found a third option: quitting on your own terms. The uncertainty of what happens next for him is as thrilling as any song LCD Soundsystem ever gave us.

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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When life gets you down, just ask yourself: what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.


15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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Tim Grierson on Director Andrea Arnold and Her Superb “Wuthering Heights”

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Breaking into Hollywood is never easy, but in the 21st century it’s still especially difficult if you’re a woman. A study produced earlier this year found that only 5% of 2011’s top 250 grossing movies were directed by women. (In case you’re wondering if that number is an anomaly, 7% of 2010’s top 250 had a female director.) There are plenty of reasons why that figure is alarming, but if you’re in need of a silver lining within that particularly gray cloud, it’s worth noting that we perhaps have more great female filmmakers right now than in any era of film history. Whether it’s a veteran like Chantal Akerman (whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was the only movie made by a women to hit the Top 50 of the recent Sight & Sound critics poll) or vital independent voices such as Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener, there are plenty of superb movies directed by women. (And this isn’t even mentioning Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most anticipated films of December.)

Another woman who deserves to be in this conversation is Andrea Arnold. Like several other names on the above list, she flies under the radar a bit: Her first two films combined grossed just over $500,000. Hopefully, her third (and best) feature will help raise her profile. It’s her first adaptation, but it contains all the qualities that distinguish her as one of our most exciting new filmmakers, which is an odd thing to say about someone who’s 51.

Her new movie is “Wuthering Heights,” based on the Emily Brontë novel, and it opens in New York on Friday. (It’ll be moving across the rest of the country soon after.) This is Arnold’s first period feature, but she makes the tragic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy feel bracingly contemporary.

For those unfamiliar with the book, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of a young, penniless boy named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) who is adopted by a kindhearted farmer (Paul Hilton) who lives in the foreboding, isolated English countryside. (Fans of the novel will note that Arnold has chosen to make Heathcliff black, a nod to modern-day interpretations of the possible racial background of this brooding, mysterious character.) Heathcliff instantly takes a shine to Cathy (Shannon Beer), the farmer’s sweet daughter, and a bond develops between them — despite the irritation of Cathy’s bigoted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Even if you skipped over Brontë’s classic in school, watching “Wuthering Heights” you can sense in your bones that a happy ending seems unlikely for Heathcliff and Cathy. But the precise way in which Arnold tells her story provides so much sadness and passion to the familiar text — according to IMDb, this is the 15th version of the book made for film or television — that its romantic anguish is as bruising as the rain that pounds down on the characters.

In a sense, Arnold’s directing career has led to remaking “Wuthering Heights.” Failed love and disconnected souls have long been a hallmark of her work. After ending a career as an actress and television personality, Arnold started making short films in the late ‘90s, winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2003’s “Wasp,” which was about a beleaguered single mother who tries to get back with an old boyfriend by trying to convince the man that her four kids aren’t hers. The gritty handheld camerawork, the luckless characters, the examination of class, the refusal to go for the easy resolution: “Wasp” can be seen as an introduction to everything Arnold would explore when she turned to features.

Her first feature, “Red Road,” about a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a surveillance camera operator, and her second, “Fish Tank,” about a teen (Katie Jarvis) who grows strangely close to her mother’s sexy boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), were unsparing portraits of life lived on the margins of society. Arnold could sometimes be faulted for indulging in a sort of “poverty porn” — letting her characters go down dark paths that feel contrived rather than organic — but her skill with emerging or first-time actors was remarkable, as was her ability to make you care for such unhappy people.

With “Wuthering Heights,” she takes her work to a new level, although she hasn’t veered dramatically from her usual milieu. Both actors who play Heathcliff — James Howson is the character as an adult — and Beer are making their screen debut, and there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. And while Arnold’s previous work has zeroed in on modern-day ills, she herself recognized the connective tissue between her previous films and Brontë’s novel. “Think about Heathcliff,” she said before filming began, “he’s an outsider, he’s a Gypsy boy. It’s a big class story. All my films have been about class, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is more of the same.” Quite right, but never before has she made her underdog hero so monstrously empowered. Both Glave and Howson portray Heathcliff as a quiet, powerfully introspective soul whose burning desire for Cathy is immediate almost from the start. Denied his prize by fate and Hindley’s cruelty, Heathcliff may be Arnold’s most despondent protagonist, but she gives him a heroic resolve that’s new in her films. As a result, her “Wuthering Heights” is a tragedy that plays out with such fire that you’re never convinced that Heathcliff won’t end up with his beloved.

And then there’s the way Arnold has constructed her film’s strikingly atmospheric look. Working with her longtime cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), editor (Nicolas Chaudeurge) and production designer (Helen Scott), Arnold has envisioned the moors of Northern England as a perpetually damp, bleak enclave cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s gothic tone is captured on screen without music — all the better to hear the wind blow through the lonely trees — and framed in the old-fashioned, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, which makes the characters feel even more trapped in their environment. (It also denies the viewer the widescreen pleasures of the beautiful locales. Arnold isn’t interested in making a travelogue.) As with her previous films, “Wuthering Heights” is a feast of intensely sensual and immediate encounters. “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” both featured powerfully carnal sex scenes, and although her new film doesn’t possess a similar moment, an exchange between Glave and Beer amidst the moors ripples with such awakening passion that it’s spellbinding. Few current filmmakers translate their characters’ desires into screen language as potently as Arnold does, and the longing in “Wuthering Heights” is so viscerally visual that it’s a small marvel.

Without any major stars, this “Wuthering Heights” won’t catapult Arnold into the realm of commercial blockbuster filmmakers, although with any luck it’ll be one of the year’s top 250 grossers. But although one wouldn’t want to dismiss the importance of box office to help make a director’s life easier when it comes to financing his or her next project, works like Arnold’s should remind us that grosses matter much less than artistry. Like many of Arnold’s female contemporaries, vision and talent are commodities she has in abundance. If audiences aren’t interested in noticing, it’s their loss, not hers.

Tim Grierson on the Inspiring AIDS Documentary “How to Survive a Plague”

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Recently, the media marked the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the nascent political movement started to protest corporate influence on government. Of course, this country has had a long history of activism, whether it’s the women’s suffrage movement that began in the 19th century, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, or the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, and it’s a sign of a strong democracy that its citizens continually feel empowered to let their voices be heard.

Probably the most meaningful activist cause of the last 30 years — one that’s still ongoing — is the fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That cause has suffered setbacks along the way, but as a moving new documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” demonstrates, there has also been significant progress, most notably in the fight to curb the spread of AIDS in the gay community in the 1980s and ‘90s. The film opened in select cities over the weekend and will be arriving on VOD platforms starting on Friday. It’s a stirring reminder that activism can sometimes be a messy, difficult process but a necessary one in order to bring about change.

“How to Survive a Plague” is directed by David France, a journalist who has been writing about AIDS for 30 years, and the documentary tells the story of ACT UP, a New York group that was committed to raising awareness of the disease and advocating for extensive government research into finding a cure. One of the organization’s biggest hurdles at the time was a public perception that AIDS was a gay illness, and consequently there was reluctance among some to help people whose lifestyle they found immoral. This meant that ACT UP had to fight bigotry as much as they were fighting a disease.

Of the film’s many laudable qualities, “How to Survive a Plague” takes us back to the roughly 10-year period that began with ACT UP’s formation in 1987, providing us with a wealth of archival footage from the organization’s meetings and public protests. As a result, “How to Survive a Plague” feels less like a historical document — although it’s certainly a valuable one — than it does an urgent battle plan that’s unfolding as we watch. Even if you already know how instrumental ACT UP’s actions were in convincing government, scientists, and drug makers to speed up their work, “How to Survive a Plague” is undeniably tense and electric. By relying largely on the old footage shot by ACT UP members, the documentary serves as a year-by-year chronicle of the incremental progress made by the group in all its messy unpredictability.

That messiness is important because it shows that democracy doesn’t often flow smoothly, requiring activists to try all different tactics to achieve their goals. In “How to Survive a Plague,” we see ACT UP’s key figures — including charismatic spokesman Peter Staley and fiery PR pro Bob Rafsky — incorporate everything from sit-ins (which they called “kiss-ins”) to theatrical, highly orchestrated protests (such as dumping the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn) to meeting with influential congressmen, moving on to new publicity strategies when old ones start to lose their potency. At the same time, the film shows how activist groups evolve over time, moving out of their idealistic early period and learning how to reconcile changing (sometimes competing) agendas within their membership. While “How to Survive a Plague” celebrates the perseverance of ACT UP, the documentary doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the group’s internal divisions after years of frustration. (Indeed, such a moment of frisson at an ACT UP meeting from the early ’90s leads to one of the film’s most cathartically beautiful scenes.)

When we think about renowned activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. who devoted their lives to changing the world, the word we often use to describe them is “courageous.” And while courage is certainly an important ingredient in challenging society’s preconceptions and biases, the men and women shown in “How to Survive a Plague” relied on anger and desperation as much as bravery. Typical Hollywood feature films would depict these people as tireless heroes, but as we see in the archival footage, they were actually quite human — articulate and smart and impassioned, but also enraged and scared about a disease that was killing their community while too much of the rest of the world looked the other way. That anger permeates “How to Survive a Plague,” which unapologetically presents ACT UP’s more combative protests and showy publicity stunts, including a confrontation with Bill Clinton while he was on the stump during the 1992 Democratic primaries. There will be those, myself included, who might become annoyed during parts of this film because it seems that ACT UP’s actions are childish or unproductive, but France makes a convincing argument that the net value of the group’s activities was resoundingly productive, kicking and screaming to bring exposure to AIDS. If nothing else, the film reminds the rest of us from the comfort of our safe remove that few things get done in a democracy by the mild and the polite.

Because it focuses on archival footage that’s supplemented by a smattering of present-day interviews, “How to Survive a Plague” is more a portrait of a cause than an in-depth examination of those involved, although we do learn enough about these individuals to deeply admire them. For an even more up-close-and-personal snapshot of how AIDS decimated communities, you should seek out last year’s “We Were Here,” a superb documentary that chronicles how San Francisco’s gay population combated the disease in the 1980s. In a sense, they’re companion pieces, offering a personal and political perspective on a scourge that claimed far too many lives. But as “How to Survive a Plague” demonstrates, though the terror of AIDS has subsided, it’s a disease that still persists. Meanwhile, the LGBT movement has made major inroads in convincing the rest of society to treat its community with the same respect and rights that all other groups receive. But that fight is not yet completed. When I was a kid learning about the civil rights movement, I wondered what it would be like to be alive during such a pivotal moment in American history. Only in my adult life have I realized that another such movement has been with us for quite some time. With its rage and tears, “How to Survive a Plague” has delivered an eloquent document of history as it happened — history that has yet to write its final chapter.

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