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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.

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Scarface Movie Al Pacino

Wanna Play?

Say Hello to Our Scarface Quiz

Play along with movie trivia during "Scarface" tonight at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Tony Montana is all about money, power and respect. And while we can’t promise you’ll get money or power by taking our Scarface quiz below, you will get respect if you get a perfect score. One out of three ain’t bad. Click below to take the quiz, and catch Scarface this month on IFC.

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Best Speech Ever

Hank Azaria’s Simpsons Advice For Grads, Questionable Shark Facts and More of This Week’s Funniest Videos

This week we're laughing at Hank's Tufts commencement speech, Jason Alexander's shark facts and more.

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Photo Credit: YouTube/Tufts University

We’ve made it! Memorial Day weekend! But before we can complain that it’s over too quickly, take a moment to bask in the pre-break lack of productivity and enjoy some lighthearted videos.

From Hank Azaria channeling Chief Wiggum and other Simpsons characters while talking to college grads to “Shark-spert” Jason Alexander sharing questionable shark facts, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kermit Informs Fozzie Bear That They’ve Been Canceled

It’s never easy to see someone receive bad news, much less a Muppet. But if anything, Kermit’s poise and acceptance during a time of crisis is impressive, admirable even. Fozzie Bear, on the other hand, reacts with greater similarity to how we would: with baseless anger and utter despair.


2. Jason Alexander Offers Shark “Fin Facts”

Memorial Day weekend means the start of beach season, aka Shark Feeding Season. As part of IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Memorial Day marathon, “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander offers up some interesting “fin facts” about our sharp-toothed friends from the deep. You can also check out Jason’s beach tips, and catch the Jaws movies with more “fin facts” from Jason this Memorial Day on IFC.


3. Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke Confirms Dothraki Is a Real Language

With eyes still dewy from the climax of this past Sunday’s Game of Thrones (Hold the door!), the Mother of Dragons herself Emilia Clarke dropped by Late Night with Seth Meyers to throw the diehard fans a reason to smile: Yes, Dothraki is a real language. Watch Clarke discuss the phonetics and grammar involved with vying for Westeros rule.


4. Hank Azaria Gives Advice Through Simpsons Characters

Hank Azaria — star of The Simpsons, The Birdcage, and Brockmire, premiering in 2017 on IFC — gave the commencement speech at his alma mater Tufts University. In the hilarious speech, Azaria discusses how he got through college, recounts his early career struggles, and offers up life advice via fan favorite Simpsons characters like Chief Wiggum and Comic Book Guy.


5. X-Men: The Animated Series Gets Honest

Screen Junkies are back this week with another round of Honest Trailers. This entry focuses on the cartoon mutants that comprise X-Men: The Animated Series — an ultra-’90s Marvel property that predates the comic book adaptation boom of the 21st Century. But looking back at the decade of Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, this video finds much to mock.

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Weird Al Comedy Bang Bang Season 5

Call Him Al

“Weird Al” Talks Comedy Bang! Bang!, His Upcoming Tour, Favorite Videos and More

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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With a career spanning five decades, “Weird Al” Yankovic has defined the song parody genre and become a beloved pop culture icon. Starting June 3rd, you’ll be able to catch him as the brand new Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader Fridays at 11P on IFC.

We recently chatted with Al about joining Scott Aukerman on the new season, his upcoming tour, favorite CB!B! characters and his future dream projects. (Hint: it might involve actors spontaneously breaking into song.)

The Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader gig seems like a natural fit for you. Did it take any time to get acclimated?

Weird Al: Yeah. It’s a slightly different skill set. The accordion is my main act, but I don’t use it on the show at all. It’s a keyboard setup. The actual setup is a little bit of a combination of what Reggie [Watts] had and [Kid] Cudi had. And a few extra things thrown in. So I’m trying to do my own version of what they brought to the show.

You’ve been on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and the show many times. Do you have a favorite CB!B! character?

Weird Al: I’d probably have to say Doctor Time. Every time Scott wants me to do an evil character, he’s always got a bad English accent. [Laughs] Any time my character goes evil, he becomes sort of British.

Any favorite guests you’ve worked with?

Weird Al: Gosh, I love them all. Paul F. Tompkins is always fun. His Andrew Lloyd Webber character, Cake Boss, everything he does. And Andy Daly as well. They’re so versatile and so amazing at improv. That’s the one thing I was a little nervous about because I’ve never been super confident with my improv skills. But Comedy Bang! Bang!, particularly the TV version, is good for that because it’s all heavily edited. So it kind of gives me permission to try out whatever comes to my mind, so if it really sucks, they’re not gonna use it. [Laughs]

Scott Aukerman Weird Al

Your upcoming tour is a continuation of your Mandatory Fun tour from last year. Any new elements to the show?

Weird Al: Well, it is the same tour, so it’s not that much different. I might freshen some video a little bit. I’m hoping to use a bit or two from the current season of Comedy Bang! Bang! and slip that into the show somewhere.

The tour starts June 3rd in St. Petersburg, Florida and ends September 24th at Radio City Music Hall. How do you keep up the pace? 

Weird Al: It’s just a mindset. I’m really only working for two hours a day, so I basically just save up my energy for the show. I relax, surf online, watch satellite TV, read a book, rest my voice, and then give it all I got when I’m onstage.

Looking back at your vast song catalog, was there ever a parody that came to you immediately upon hearing the song?

Weird Al: Yeah, that’s happened a few times. More often than not, I have to think about it and analytically work out all the variations on a theme that I can and pick out the one with the most potential. But there’s been a few times where the idea came to me spontaneously. I think the first time I saw Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, before it was even over, I thought, “Oh! I gotta do ‘Fat’! Super-plus-sized actors trying to get through a turnstile on a subway! I gotta do that!”

Do you have a favorite of your many hilarious videos?

Weird Al: Oh boy, it’s hard to say. “White and Nerdy” has been my biggest hit and that was a really fun video to do. But in terms of making a video, “Tacky” was really fun to do because it was so easy and I got to work with amazing people like Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Kristen Schaal, Eric Stonestreet, and Aisha Tyler. And we knocked it out in a couple of hours. We were having so much fun while making it, I kinda wish we weren’t so efficient and professional. [Laughs] I could’ve done that all night.

Was it filmed all in one take or was it stitched together?

Weird Al: That was all one take. Some people say, “Oh, I see where the edit is,” but it was all one shot. We did a total of six takes, and I think four of those takes were usable, but the last one was the best.

And you were directing while performing?

Weird Al: I directed that one, yeah. We location scouted and found a building in downtown LA that I thought was good for the shoot. I’ve since seen that building in a lot of other movies and TV shows — I think it was used in The Big Lebowski and a few others. It was difficult because I start the video in one set of clothes and I also end the video in a completely different set of clothes. So while the cameras were off me, because there’s only one elevator in the building, I had to run down five flights of stairs, quickly change my clothes, and hit my mark for the end. And after the take, we’d all just watch what we did, and say, “OK, let’s do it again.”

Is there a director you’d love to work with in the future?

Weird Al: Oh gosh, yeah, but I mean, music videos are notoriously low-budget so that’s why I end up directing them myself. [Laughs] But I’d love to be in a movie codirected by Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.

Do you have a particular genre of music that you love parodying the most? Or is it more of the moment and different for each song?

Weird Al: It doesn’t necessarily revolve around personal taste so much. It really depends more on the song than the genre. But I found rap songs tend to lend themselves to parody, mostly because there’s a lot of words to play with. A lot of pop songs are repetitive, and that’s sometimes been an issue. With rap, there’s no shortage of syllables to mess around with.

Given that you’ve been so prolific and done so much, is there any type of art left that you’d like to dip your toe in? Dramatic acting, perhaps?

Weird Al: Well, if Spielberg and Tarantino want me for their film, I wouldn’t want to turn them down. But there’s no burning desire to do drama. I love doing comedy and feel comfortable doing that. Writing a musical might be something I do down the line. I don’t know when but I might take a shot at something in that area. Other than that, I’ve done pretty much all I wanted to do in my life so far. A lot of it not successfully. [Laughs] But I took a stab at it and feel gratified by that.

You’ve had such a eclectic career in music and comedy. What do you attribute your longevity to?

Weird Al: [Laughs] I don’t know what I’d attribute the longevity to. There’s a modicum of talent, but it’s mostly because I surround myself with very talented people. I’ve got a great support group, I’ve got the same band since the early ’80s, and I’ve worked with the same people for decades. And I got a very loyal fan base and I love what I do. And somehow I’ve been very lucky and it’s worked out so far.

Watch “Weird Al” in an episode from the new season of Comedy Bang! Bang! right now, before the season premiere on Friday June 3rd at 11P.

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