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.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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