The documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits captures the group's farewell gig and attempts to figure out why a band would amicably break up at the height of its popularity.
On April 2, 2011, at a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden, the world said goodbye to LCD Soundsystem. The 20,000-person crowd, at the band's urging, dressed in black and white—funeral attire. (Though some concertgoers dressed like the scary love-you-till-I-hurt-you pandas from the Spike Jonze-directed video for "Drunk Girls.") After more than three hours of music, which Pitchfork streamed live to additional listeners all over the world, singer James Murphy collapsed, the band stopped, the lights went down, and fans went home covered in sweat, tears, and confetti.
This potent emotional mixture—celebration, mourning—characterizes a new documentary about the band's last show and final days. In some ways, Shut Up and Play the Hits resembles a Last Waltzfor the iTunes generation: The performances are ecstatic, but the tone is funereal. LCD Soundsystem helped introduce unabashed dance and disco influences to the thin-lipped world of indie rock; for many, their dissolution signaled the end of an era. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, screens in theatres nationwide tonight, July 18th, for one night only.
"For a small group of people—mostly young, mostly men—LCD was the naughts," said Nick Sylvester, the former Pitchfork writer and drummer for Mr. Dream who sang in the backup chorus Murphy assembled for the final show, in an email. "The songs described very specific emotional realities about becoming an adult and attempting to be a decent human being."
The band was also revered for swirling together an odd brew of disparate musical flavors: David Byrne's percussive grooves and cerebral humor, the rawness and emotional honesty of Velvet Underground-era Lou Reed, outsize Bowiesque theatricality. Matty Fasano, another Brooklyn songwriter who sang backup in the final show, admired Murphy's ability to forge something new out of iconic sounds.
"One thing that makes [Murphy] different is the distinctiveness of his voice," Fasano told me over the phone. "The singing on 'Get Innocuous!' is straight out of Bowie's Heroes, but since the voice that's channeling that influence is so distinct, it becomes completely different."
While many performers featured in The Last Waltz had released their best material years earlier—think Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Van Morrison—this goodbye felt strangely premature. The pervading feeling was that LCD Soundsystem was only getting started. Their third and final album, This Is Happening (2010) received near-universal acclaim; at almost the same time, the band experienced a huge surge in visibility thanks to the growing reputation of its live show, laudatory profiles in magazines like The New Yorker, and prominent appearances in Pitchfork's "Best of the '00s" lists. (Most notably, 2007's "All My Friends" from Sound of Silver appeared as the No. 2 song of its decade.) This level of attention was something new for the band, who were revered by indie purists but still remain little-known to a general audience.
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Until recently, no one could have anticipated the fêting LCD Soundsystem would ultimately receive. The group's inauspicious beginnings never suggested a band marked for greatness (or even broad appeal). Murphy cut his teeth in rock's most underappreciated roles: He's originally a drummer and audio setup man. Tall, grizzled, and heavy-set, he's built less like a singer and more like a volunteer fireman. Failed bands swallowed his 20s. He didn't even start LCD Soundsystem until 2001, when he was 31 years old—the age at which many rock musicians are either getting big or getting out.
Add to these liabilities that LCD's musical project was fundamentally strange. In 2004, before LCD Soundsystem had released a record or single, Murphy's then-fledgling label, DFA, tried to for a shot at the bigger-time by convincing The Rapture to let them produce their forthcoming single "House of Jealous Lovers." Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy transformed a straight-ahead rocker into a thumping disco smash; according to DFA's Jonathan Galkin, both the band and its label, Sub Pop, initially "freaked out" when they heard the mix. People were not ready for this music, they thought, and they refused to release the track. But Murphy and his co-founder Tim Goldsworthy ultimately managed to persuade the skeptics—and "House of Jealous Lovers" went on to be one of the biggest indie songs of 2004. Listen to it now: Murphy's fingerprints are all over it. It's his first hit, and it sounds like proto-LCD Soundsystem.
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So when the last concert filled Madison Square Garden—a venue typically reserved for unit-shifting pop stars, not oddball indie tastemakers—it indicated that LCD's appeal had reached new heights. Barring outdoor festival shows, which draw huge crowds with marathon lineups, it was by far the largest audience the group had entertained. This is the contradiction British filmmakers Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern explore in Shut Up: Why would a band on the cusp of arrival be tearing itself apart?
"We were very interested in this really, really calm decision to call it quits," Southern told me in a phone interview. "To just stop when most other bands would feel like they were just getting going."
Scenes from the concert itself make up about two-thirds of the film, and the filmmakers take great care with the performance they document—Murphy himself helped master the audio. Thirteen cameras captured the performance in exquisite detail. Lovelace and Southern told me that they shunned the static camera angles typical of fannish concert movies. They turned down the boxy, straight-on views of the venue's "Shania positions," camera enclaves named for the pop star who'd had them built. Instead, cinematographers shot onstage and roved through the crowd, focusing especially on fan emotion.
"The hope is it is the next-best thing to being there," Southern said, "a true visceral document of that show."
The filmmakers create a kind of emotional whiplash by juxtaposing loud, pulsing concert footage with quiet scenes from Murphy's first post-breakup morning after. We watch him transform from caterwauling rock and roll icon into a haggard everyman, walking his dog alone. Audio from Murphy's interview with music critic Chuck Klosterman, which took place a week ahead of the show, is layered over these quiet scenes—creating a strange, affecting tension between before and after.
"When you start a band, do you imagine how it will end?" Klosterman asks.
It's likely that a performer as reflexively self-conscious as Murphy did imagine the end before the end it came. "LCD is a band about a band making music about making music," he told The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones in 2010. One of the band's best-known songs, "All My Friends," is an unflinching meditation on the elusiveness of neat endings. "It comes apart," Murphy warns, "the way it does in bad films—except the part when the moral kicks in." Maybe when callow, hungry musicians start a band, they imagine themselves enshrined in rock glory—finally cashing out after years of Beatlesque artistic development and blooming fame. But Murphy wrote songs about how these rock clichés wither under the harsh glow of the stagelight.
"The film asks the question why and sort of presents a number of answers," Southern told me, "but one of the things we wanted was never to have a conclusion that the band ended and James made the decision for this or that exact reason. We just wanted to leave the audience with a feeling of empathy for that position—of putting a stop to a 10-year period of your life and what it might feel like in the aftermath of that decision."
Certainly age and health, subjects Murphy addresses in his interview with Klosterman, were a factor. "Touring is great until it sucks," Sylvester told me. "You can't underestimate what a bummer it is to be away from home for that long, eating terrible food and driving ten hours a day and sharing motel beds with the drummer. James likes to make stuff. It's hard to work on the road."
But there's obviously much more to it. The musicians in the film are so clearly still in love with the experience of making art together. The enormous emotional difficulty of disbanding becomes especially apparent in one of the film's harshest scenes. "James had to run a bunch of errands in the city—he ended up having to go and visit all the band equipment that was going into storage ready to be kind of sold off," Southern said. Standing in a room alone, surrounded by the beloved equipment, Murphy collapses into a chair and weeps.
So why do it?
"For most bands, playing Madison Square Garden would be this massive point of arrival," Fasano said. "The start of something new. But I think [Murphy] made a decision that he wanted to move on. Bands can be very limiting, in a way. Even just a band name. You're expected to sound a certain way, you're expected to do a certain thing with certain people."
Though age is a liability for some rock stars, Fasano thought that maturity allowed him to reach a measured decision most younger musicians could never make.
"Being older than most rock musicians," he said, "he knew that this massive popularity wouldn't necessarily expand his options—it could actually limit them. I think it takes a wise, calm soul to see that. To see he could be less limited to stop the band when they had never made a bad record, that had never missed the spot. But he's not going to go away. It's a decision to walk away from 'bigger and better'—and instead do 'more and different.'"
Regardless of Murphy's individual reasons, fans will certainly mourn this particular incarnation of his expression.
"More than any Idea About LCD Soundsystem," Sylvester said, "We're saying goodbye to a fucking killer live band. I'll miss the simple joy of seeing those humans play music together."