If you’re standing outside of it, the world of alternative rock, with its perpetual insular buzz, can seem a hive of rowdy noise. For those in the hive, it can be hard to hear, or see, anything else. The fascination of Dig!, a documentary that traces the parallel fortunes of two prominent indie bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, from 1996 to the present day, is that it invites those of us who aren’t alt-rock obsessives into the hive, yet it never feels like a dilettante’s tour. Ondi Timoner, who directed and edited the film, gets right up into the pores of the post-grunge demimonde: the ego clashes, the scramble for recognition, the stoned squatters’ lifestyle, the eternal crusade to stay ”pure.”
The two bands start out as mutual supporters, then drift apart as they strike different deals with the system. The Dandy Warhols, led by the wan, androgynously coiffed Courtney Taylor (who narrates the film), are, by temperament, the perkier of the two. They land a contract with Capitol Records and shoot a $400,000 video with David LaChapelle, then set out to conquer the charts, a crapshoot to exist and be heard that looks more and more like a rigged lottery. Whether or not they’re trying to sell out, their sound is poppy and organized enough to fit into a corporate template of upbeat garage rock. The Brian Jonestown Massacre are another story. Their leader, Anton Newcombe, is the central figure in Dig! – a drugged-out, at times violent megalomaniac who sees himself as a musical saint, too noble to join the industry. He’s the most infuriating of prima donnas, yet there’s no denying that Newcombe is a star, a prodigal rocker with the floppy-haired macho charisma of Jackson Browne crossed with Anthony Kiedis.
We see him attack his band members on stage (notably during a gig filled with eager A&R executives), besiege members of the audience, and – through it all – destroy any hope of succeeding in the business. He rejects stardom as though it were a disease, yet the sound of the Brian Jonestown Massacre is far from combative. It’s a lyrical balm, rooted in some transcendental drone from the ’60s (it carries shades of the Velvet Underground and the Beatles’ ”Rain”). It’s free in a way the lively bop of the Dandy Warhols isn’t. As Newcombe turns against everyone, notably his former pals in the other band, we wonder: Is this one man’s self-destructive mania – or is it the face of integrity in an industry now ruled by jangly-guitar soldiers? The answer is both.