Rock’n’roll Is Petty as Hell in This Music Documentary — and It’s Riveting


The Big Picture

  • Dig! is a masterful rock doc that captures the essence of ’90s rock’n’roll with its blend of garage rock, psychedelia, and competitive drive.
  • The frenemy relationship between the frontmen of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols adds a reality TV-like element to the film.
  • The film’s embrace of both the wonderful and terrible aspects of rock’n’roll makes it one of the all-time great music movies.


Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary Dig! is a masterful blend of everything there is to love about rock music. There is the superb songwriting and guitar playing of both The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, two ’90s bands that beautifully blended garage rock and psychedelics to create a unique sound. There’s the vain, petty, and even childish behavior of some of the band members, who obviously heard tales of rocker antics and sought to imitate them. There’s the fierce competitiveness and ferocious drive for success that many ’90s bands pretended not to have, lest they seem too interested in commercialism. And finally, there is the frenemy relationship at the heart of the film between the two bands’ frontmen, which veers almost into reality TV territory. As we revisit this remarkably unique rock doc, we’ll see why its embrace of everything both wonderful and terrible about rock’n’roll makes it one of the all-time great music movies.


What Is ‘Dig!’ About?

Image via Palm Pictures

The film opens with many pronouncements about the greatness of Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe, who is practically worshiped by Dandy Warhols’ leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor. Newcombe makes some bold (possibly tongue-in-cheek) pronouncements about starting a revolution and changing the world with Taylor-Taylor. Some record company and music critic talking heads help put these groups in perspective by telling us that they are both genuinely talented and doing something interesting. These snippets are intercut with both rock bands letting loose, as rock bands tend to do, by getting naked and doing countless lines of cocaine. (Any documentary filmmaker who manages to film their subjects doing illegal drugs automatically deserves some kind of award.)

Timoner’s style feels both of its time and remarkably fresh and energetic. The camera never seems to sit still, frequently swirling around in a loose and trippy manner that blends seamlessly with concert footage. The pace is fast, more like a music video than a documentary. The overall effect is something akin to a blend of MTV and Oliver Stone‘s The Doors. Timoner injects so much life and energy into her film that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the bands’ insanity. Lest we get too settled in or comfortable, Timoner ensures that it doesn’t take long before fists literally start to fly when Newcombe yells at and hits Taylor-Taylor on stage.

What Does ‘Dig!’ Have to Say About ’90s Rock’n’roll?

Dig! (2004) music documentary
Image via Palm Pictures

Although frequently considered a sensationalistic aspect of this story, the Newcombe vs. Taylor-Taylor friendship-turned-rivalry speaks volumes about popular music in the ’90s. Even actual brothers, such as Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher, were constantly at each other’s throats. And that was relatively tame compared to the awful murders of beloved rappers like Biggie and Tupac, as well as the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain. The ’90s music world was extraordinarily volatile. Far from feeling like a tabloid distraction, the rivalry at the heart of Dig! might be the most insightful part of the film. Perhaps it’s nice to live under the delusion that our favorite musicians are all chill people and fun at parties, but the reality is often quite different.

Only 16 minutes into the film, Newcombe starts a brawl onstage. To some, this might seem irrelevant but it’s an honest indication of the singer’s struggles with mental health issues and alcoholism. To ignore incidents like this brawl is burying one’s head in the sand about not just the difficult truths of creative types but of human beings in general. Although some of the band members knocked Dig! for its “Jerry Springer” approach, in fact, the film’s displays of petty arguments and pointless fights are among its most honest and endearing qualities.

One of the most notable and interesting things about Dig!, especially when viewed decades after its release, is how quaint and of its time it now feels. When is the last time you’ve heard of a talented musician being skeptical about deals offered by major record labels because they don’t want to compromise their artistry? Perhaps this idea strikes some people today as pretentious, but “selling out” was once considered a fate worse than death by Gen X. Only occasionally do the biggest of contemporary pop stars (such as Taylor Swift and Kanye West) fight back against record labels’ control of their music. The only avenue to stardom these days that feels genuinely independent or alternative is the internet, where musicians and other creators at least have the opportunity to distribute their work to the world as they see fit. Watching Dig!, it’s impossible not to yearn for the days when musicians cared more about their music than their bank accounts. We simply didn’t know how good we had it.

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Why Is ‘Dig!’ an Excellent Music Documentary?

Dig! (2004)
Image via Palm Pictures

Dig! definitely has some similarities to other great rock docs that preceded it. D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back immediately comes to mind. So too does the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, a film as much about rock music as the naivete and dangers of the 1960s counter-culture. While both of these films fully embraced the cinema verite approach (whereas Dig! is a bit more conventional in its style), they paved the way for raw, honest portraits of rock stars thrust into turbulent times. There is more going on in these classic films than just observing eccentric artists. Both documentaries explore themes that resonated with their audiences, and both asked questions that were in urgent need of answers.

Dig! emulates some of the best elements of these films but also stands apart from them, not just because it chronicles a different era of music, but also because it deals with a defining theme of Gen X: being creative on your own terms. To that end, Dig! shows all the highs and lows of being an uncompromising musician, from childish tantrums to contending with the complicated flaws of the industry. It’s hard to be a rebel and also have the self-awareness to know when it’s time to stop rebelling. Dig! reveals this fundamentally rock’n’roll struggle like few films before or after it. For that reason, it deserves to be considered one of the all-time great music movies.

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