Posts from 11th July 2005

11
Jul 05

The Flaming Lips ARE the Fearless Freaks (or one was)

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I had heard a bit about an upcoming documentary on the Flaming Lips but didn’t immediately expect to be able to watch a copy on vacation in Europe — but such are the ways of staying with people who get promos. More importantly, The Fearless Freaks is flat out a very good movie — you really don’t have to be a fan of the band to watch it all. As a result, it’s that rarest of beasts, a rockumentary that not only survives beyond its immediate context but arguably thrives.

Keep in mind I speak from a fan perspective on the band, so I’d probably need more distance in the end to make such a claim. Still, what struck me about the film is that for a production that’s seemingly so insular — the director, Bradley Beesley, ended up living next to Lips leader Wayne Coyne in 1991 and almost immediately became their film/video creator for most everything since — is its reach, depth and breadth. You can watch this film less as being about the story of a band — and anyone looking for some kind of hyperdetailed story about each album or the like is in the wrong place — as the story of some people who happen to be in a band.

It’s also the story of, ultimately, three guys from Oklahoma City and their lives, some a bit more than others. For most such productions you might get a few random words about the town/scene a band was from before hitting the road/big time/whatever, but Oklahoma City and the people who live there loom large in the telling. Coyne himself has a reputation of being an enthusiastic, hard-working and sharp fellow and all those qualities come through, but in particular it’s his sense of what he does and how he lives that shines the strongest. Shots of him mowing the lawn might be seen by cynics as false humility, but in context he’s showing life not only in his home town but his neighborhood, where he has lived most of his life and shows no inclination to leave. He acknowledges the rougher aspects of that neighborhood without either apologizing for them or fearing them, and the sight of him happily chatting with a group of young area kids or reenacting a robbery committed at his former workplace with the help of two kids of the current Vietnamese owners is charming because it isn’t twee, it just is.

Similarly Beesley lets Coyne and his family members talk about themselves most of all (Beesley’s own narration maybe consists of ten to fifteen lines total), with both Coyne and core Lips musician Steven Drozd speaking frankly about brothers in trouble with law — again, neither to condemn or affect horror, but simply to tell and acknowledge (and in both cases the respective brothers are with them, and neither seek self-pity or audience pity in turn). Not all is sadness by any means — Coyne’s story of his upbringing, his many siblings and what it all involved is above all one of familial togetherness — but the lack of self-pity reaches its limit with the harrowing depiction of Drozd himself shooting up, explaining without apology about his heroin habit of long-standing, while Coyne speaks of having to deal with the consequences of that in turn. There is, as it turns out, a happy ending, but one gets from the whole sequence a human drama all the more powerful for being understated, based on a process of explanation and implication, of retelling key decisions after the fact. Without being so blithe as ‘just say no,’ it’s possibly both one of the best depictions of addiction on screen as well as putting for an argument for letting go — all without moralizing.

It’s not the whole story, of course, and what makes the film such a gift in the end is showing everything from the many incarnations of the band’s performing states over the years, building up to the warm cockeyed Disney-with-blood variants of today, to the pride of friends and family members (and fellow Oklahoma City denizens as well), to the explanations for how to get stage blood out of a suit and why Coyne loves Halloween. There’s even scope for including an enemy or two, with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers talking about how he figured the Lips ripped them off a few times (and, interestingly, both Beesley and Coyne provide evidence for just that). There’s a fair bit on Coyne’s own film work with his Christmas on Mars project, which could yet be something surprisingly grand if it ever gets finished. And finally, without giving away anything, the whole film ends on a perfect note (and at the end of the credits, perfect notes), a combination of philosophical understanding that’s not generic self-help hash and salutory melancholy for the dead.

And yes, there’s plenty of music.