November 08, 2013

Celebrating Mattsgiving With The Musical Catharsis Of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

"If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever."
In my younger days, every t-shirt I owned proudly displayed the name of some band whose show I'd gone to see.  I've always been a pretty ravenous collector of music and I spent a lot of nights in high school and college going to punk shows at the various tiny clubs located along Landsdowne Street just behind Fenway Park.  (It was a particularly entertaining scene in the summer, as you'd have thousands of baseball fans crowding the streets around the park, and then a few hundred kids in black t-shirts and mohawks lining the opposite sidewalk.)  Live shows were very visceral experience for me; as a kid I'd gone to see some bands play stadiums or outdoor venues, but I'd be sitting so far away from the stage that I felt removed from the band itself.  Sure I could hear the music, but I wanted to see them playing, to see the emotions on the singer's face and attempt to glean exactly what each song meant to guys who wrote it.  That's why I loved going to punk shows.  The crowds and the venues were smaller, sometimes downright tiny, and anyone had the ability to make their way right up to the front of the stage (or in some cases crowdsurf onto the stage) and actually interact with the band.  There was a palpable energy to those shows that would ripple through the crowd, surging with the beat of the deafening music and the flashing of the stage lights.

More than anything else, Shut Up And Play The Hits is remarkable for its ability to recreate that feeling of raw concert energy on screen and convey a sense of intense intimacy even within the cavernous hall of Madison Square Garden.  Walking into this film, I was almost completely unfamiliar with LCD Soundsystem, a band who had suddenly decided to call it quits despite having a fervently committed fan base.  This wasn't a clash of personalities who could no longer stand to be in the same room together.  In fact, watching them interact both on and backstage it's clear that any of these folks would gladly walk into traffic for each other.  They simply wanted to move on to other things and mutually decided to walk away, but not before putting on one last epic show for themselves and all their loyal followers.

The film is smartly divided into three sections: there's the concert footage and backstage musings of that final performance, there's lead singer James Murphy taking stock of it all over the course of the following day, and there's an interview between Murphy and journalist Chuck Klosterman two weeks prior that provides the doc with a lot of wistful voiceover narration.  Each thread is focused on Murphy, but he's in such a distinctly different psychological place in each timeline that we're able to witness a full and emotional journey, nonlinear as it may be.  Murphy gives a fascinating interview, a truly smart guy who's got a keen sense of self-awareness and he approaches the end of LCD Soundsystem from a very measured, intellectual standpoint.  It provides a kind of internal monologue for the concert footage, which is sweet and raucous and joyful and melancholy and exhausting and above all brimming over with love. It also helps that the music is utterly fantastic, and that's coming from someone who had never heard a single note of LCD beforehand.  Having now lived with one of their albums for a few weeks, I'll admit that they might actually be better live than recorded, as Murphy's voice has a deeper, richer quality in the film.  I think it's pretty difficult to watch this movie and not walk away a fan, which makes their disbanding all the more tragic for those of us who are late to the party.

And yet, it's that third thread that's the most heartbreaking.  We follow Murphy from the moment he wakes up the next morning until he eventually meets with his now former bandmates for dinner in Williamsburg.  Aside from an afternoon meeting with the band's manager, he spends much of the day alone and in silence, seeming to contemplate exactly what he's done and where he's going next with only his dog for comfort.  There's a moment late in the film where he walks into the storage room containing all the band's instruments and equipment, and Murphy just stands there, taking it all in.  He'd remained largely upbeat and positive throughout the previous night's show, but now presented with the proof that it's all really over, the dam finally breaks and Murphy stands sobbing in the empty concrete room, like a solitary mourner in front of a casket.

There's a reason I wanted to write about this today of all days.  Today is Mattsgiving, the day that my friends and I celebrate the life of our friend Matt Starring who passed away from leukemia four years ago.  I knew Matt from our college a cappella group Noteworthy, a bright, funny, giving person who was also a wildly talented musician.  He was one of the very best of us and he was gone away far too soon.  But his death was not sudden.  Cancer is a slow knife, and when the end was finally near we all knew it was coming.  I had been living in Los Angeles at the time and hadn't actually seen Matt in a while, so when I got word that he only had a few weeks left, I was faced with a choice: I could either go back immediately to spend a few days with him or I could wait until it was all over and travel back for the funeral, but time and money would prevent me from doing both.  It honestly wasn't much of a choice.  I booked a flight a few days later and flew home to spend Halloween weekend with Matt, his family and our friends. He was still in good spirits even then, and there was a lot of love in the Starring house that weekend, along with a lot of music and so, so much laughter.  When it came time to head back to the airport, Matt was sleeping and I didn't want to wake him, so I wrote him a goodbye message on a paper plate, telling him how much I loved him and how happy I was to see him again, and slipped it under his bedroom door.  It was the closest I got to a last goodbye.  As far as I know, that paper plate is still hanging on the wall in his bedroom.

Shut Up And Play The Hits starts off with that funeral quote at the top, and that's no accident.  Most bands either break up suddenly or simply drift away over time, so it's very rare to see a band hold a "final performance."  The same is true when people die, and in both situations I'm honestly not sure which makes for the harder goodbye, knowing or not knowing.  But the documentary is very much a chronicle of LCD Soundsystem's final days and all the various stages of grief that James Murphy experiences while saying goodbye to his musical creation.  The film's final twelve minutes are pure, heart-wrenching musical catharsis as the band leaves it all out on the field in a single song that I quite frankly cannot stop listening to.  Today I can't help but think of Matt's funeral, where Noteworthy gathered together and, wearing his signature red Chucks, belted out a rendition of "I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends," a phrase I now have tattooed on my right arm.  It was a loud and loving tribute to the man we all loved and would never see again, and if Matt could have seen it, I know he would have been smiling.

Tonight I'll get together for drinks with some of Matt's friends and then a few of us will go up to Vermont this weekend.  Others will gather in New York and Los Angeles and hopefully we'll all get the chance to see each other via video chat.  There will be food and booze and laughter and tears.

And there will be music.


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Title:  Shut Up And Play The Hits
Director: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern
Starring: James Murphy, Chuck Klosterman, Keith Wood, Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney, Al Doyle, Tyler Pope
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant