This month sees the release of Shut Up And Play The Hits, a documentary and concert film about the final days of LCD Soundsystem. The film follows the band’s founder James Murphy over the course of just a few days, taking in the band’s final gig at Madison Square Garden and the harsh return to reality that followed.
Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace of production house Thirtytwo, the film is an emotional and delicate portrait of a band with a unique style, and focuses on the fascinating character that is James Murphy. Pinpointing the final days of the band rather than telling its story from start to finish, Southern and Lovelace’s film picks apart the seemingly bizarre decision to call time on a band at the heights of its powers and popularity. That decision, made with stunning calmness and clarity of mind, sums up the methodology of a band based on a unique artistic vision and approach.
The Warehouse Project spoke to director Dylan Southern to discuss his own career and his work at the helm of one of 2012’s most unique films.
The Warehouse Project: How long have you and Will Lovelace been working together?
Dylan Southern: A long time. We met at University in Liverpool and we did our final year documentary together. Immediately after that, we took advantage of some of the money that was available in the North-West to start a business and set up a company. We were in Liverpool for about six years after University, so nine years in total. We started our own production company with doing what we’re doing now in mind but very quickly ended up realizing how much work we would have to do to pay everyone’s wages and we ended going in the wrong direction really and taking on a lot of corporate work that wasn’t perhaps as creatively satisfying. Always with a foot in music. We used to do the designs for [Liverpool clubnight] Chibuku and a few music videos and things. We used to do club visuals and all the flyers and artwork. Other than that, we decided the best thing to do was to move down to London so we moved down here in 2007. We were doing music videos and eventually commercials. We made the film about Blur, No Distance Left To Run and then moved on to this one.
WHP: Between moving down to London and doing the Blur film, what sort of artists were you making music videos for?
DS: We worked with Elbow (‘The Bones Of You’), Franz Ferdinand (‘Ulysses’), Arctic Monkeys (‘My Propeller’), The Fall (‘Bury’). We did a bunch of low budget ones at first but once we got into a position, we went after artists we really liked and that led on to the films really. We were always interested in working with people whose music we liked and appreciated.
WHP: How did the Blur film come about?
DS: It was a total long-shot. We’d heard on the grapevine that Graham and Damon had met up and that there was a reunion on the cards, so we got straight in touch with the management. We said we had a sort of idea for a documentary and would we be able to pitch it to them. They didn’t say yes at first. We went to one of the early rehearsals when they’d just got together and were meeting once a month, something like that. Actually, it was once every two or three months and this was one of their very first get-togethers. We were brought into the room thinking they already knew who we were and why we were there and they didn’t have a clue. We literally had to cold sell them the idea of doing this film. It didn’t go well and we left thinking ‘Fucking hell, that was shit. Nothing’s going to happen’. And then it was about six weeks later we got a phone call saying“Let’s give it a go”. I don’t know what happened in between or whether we did a better job at selling it than we thought. It was a weird one because we were both teenagers in the 90’s and Britpop was our era. It was very strange suddenly being in a room with people you’d been to see when you were thirteen, fourteen. It was interesting.
WHP: How was the process of putting together Shut Up And Play The Hits?
DS: We knew we wanted to have an interesting structure, in that we wanted to follow the reunion but also jump into back the historical story throughout. Even before they came back and said yes, we spent the time in between planning out a structure for the film and how we’d approach their story and with the odd thing that we couldn’t predict it’s pretty faithful to the vision we had of how we’d tell the story. The thing that brought us to that film was that, as well as it being a great band and great music, there was actually a story with a lot of emotion and a lot of potential to make something quite cinematic. That was really our aim, to make a music documentary that was very engaged in an emotional way.
WHP: Were you a fan of LCD Soundsystem before the film came about?
DS: Yeah, both me and Will were fans. We weren’t super-obsessive fans or anything like that, probably more casual fans, but we were really interested in James as a character and the decision to end the band, because it seemed sort of counterintuitive. It’s the opposite of what bands usually do; they either implode or fall out, in the case of Blur, or have all kinds of issues, or they keep on going and become nostalgia acts playing their hits.
So it intrigued us that James should make such a calm decision to end the band. It just seemed such an interesting thing, to do that.well as it being a great band and great music, there was actually a story with a lot of emotion and a lot of potential to make something quite cinematic. That was really our aim, to make a music documentary that was very engaged in an emotional way.
WHP: Did you get a real sense of him as a person during the process of making the film?
DS: Yeah, we did. It was a weird one compared to Blur, because with Blur we embedded ourselves with the band; we were there for the rehearsals, we were there on tour with them. It was a much more traditional documentary in the sense that we were telling a longer story and observing them, over a period of time. With this one, rather than being a biographical film that tells the story from start to finish, we really wanted to make a film that was a document of the end. It was just two days, pretty much. We don’t try and tell the beginning to end story of LCD. We’re not dealing with record-by-record accounts of what the band did. It’s much more… we wanted to give the audience an authentic document of that show. The film is, in a huge part, a concept film but then it’s also a portrait of James Murphy and it’s also an exploration of why he ended the band. More than that it’s all about the feeling of ending the band. We were very keen that the audience would have a very palpable sense of how it felt the minute the band was over for James.
WHP: There are quite extreme contrasts between the scenes of the concert and those of James alone directly after it. It’s clearly a very naturalistic way of telling the story.
DS: When we first talked about it, Madison Square Garden wasn’t announced. We had a few meetings – James is often in London, we’re sometimes in New York – and we talked in very general terms about what type of film we could make. We all agreed that we weren’t making a biography film, it wasn’t going to be a definitive telling of the story, it was more going to be a film that somehow captured the band’s ending. Early on in the discussions, we were even talking about whether we could set up a small intimate gig as the last one. It was only about three months into us chatting with each other that James rang up and said “This is crazy. We’ve just booked MSG.” And it did seem mad. I never would have thought of LCD playing Madison Square Garden. You tend to think of Bon Jovi or Lady Gaga. And I think the perversity that this band that started almost by accident ends up playing this huge hometown gig as their final ever show, it seemed obvious that that’s what we’d pin the film around.
WHP: Did that change the tone of the film?
DS: Because we didn’t have a fully-focused idea at that point, I think it really brought everything together. We’re huge fans of concert movies so for us it was a chance to make, in a way, quite an old-fashioned concert movie. We didn’t want to have technocranes and crazy camera work and the stuff that they do because they feel like they have to spice up the visuals. We were much more interested in shooting it in the way they used to shoot concerts. We were interested in shooting the relationship between the musicians onstage and shooting the energy of the fans and how that works. Even though it’s in this huge, epic location – we show the scale of the place throughout – we were really more focused on intimate shots and having a real sense of being there. We wanted it to be as close as you could get to being at the show, as you can manage with a bunch of cameras.
WHP: And that sense of experience is heightened by the simultaneous screenings.
DS: For us, that made total sense. Music documentaries and particularly concert films, it doesn’t make sense for it to have a really long run because we’d rather it played to packed houses for one night than empty screens over the course of two weeks. It sort of made sense. In America, nearly everything sold out and people added extra screens. Some of the major cities ran it for a week. It proved that the audience was there for it but it ended up being really special. It sort of had the atmosphere of going to a show, rather than going to a film. We wanted as many people as possible to see it in a cinema, rather than on a laptop screen. The sound is incredible. James mixed all the sound and then he was present for the Dolby 5.1 mixes and sat at the desk with the Dolby guy. As you’d expect, he’s really keen to be in control of what it sounds like and it sounds incredible through a really good speaker system.
WHP: What was the editing process like? Was it difficult having to cut a lot of good footage to make it fit to two hours?
DS: It was really tough. It was tough from the point of view that it was a four hour show and our film, we wanted it to be as close to ninety minutes – a good length for a music documentary – as possible. It was really long songs. There aren’t any kind of three minute pop songs; they’re all groove-based. You want to see them build and keep building. We tried to be quite faithful to the experience of the concert and leave as many songs playing to their full duration as possible. There are three strands to the film; the interview that happens three weeks before Madison Square Garden [with Chuck Klosterman]. He was amazing. We brought him on board because we’d read an amazing interview he’d done previously and we sort of gave him the assignment as if he was writing a piece for a magazine or a biography. We gave him instructions of what we wanted to get out of James and he came and did the interview as he would for a normal interview. I think it lasted about four hours. So there’s three strands to the film. There’s that interview, which quite often you hear underneath the footage of the day after, which is the very mundane, back to reality sort of footage. We were always really keen to have that sort of contrast, him as this really iconic guy onstage at this venue, an amazing show to thousands of fans, contrasted with him as an ordinary guy who has to take his dog for a piss and make coffee. That’s something that he focuses on in the film is this idea of how you perceive your idols when you’re a kid. He looked at Bowie or Lou Reed and thought ‘I could never be like that’. I think part of one of the film’s scenes is that idea that at the end of the day, these remarkable people are just like you or I. They’ve got to check their emails, they’ve got to do all the stuff that we have to do. We were always interested in that contrast.
WHP: What did you and Will think of the decision to end the band?
DS: James is a very analytical person, quite possibly overthinks things. In the film there are a number of possible reasons given during the course of the interview for why the band ends. Deliberately we never honed in on a definitive reason why it ended because I don’t think there is one. I think there’s a bunch of different things that all influence the decision, like getting older, not wanting to tour as much anymore, wanting to have a family but then other things like fearing that the next album wouldn’t live up to expectation. I think there are a whole bunch of different possible reasons but the film isn’t interested in presenting one or other of them as the reason. We were more interested in creating a film that allows you to feel what it would feel like to make that decision.
In terms of legacy, to end and leave a body of work you’re really pleased with and to have done everything right for you, I think it can only mean that they’ll have a good legacy. If they’d gone on and made a bunch of albums for money or carried on touring… it’s a way of James controlling how LCD, as one of his projects, goes on to be perceived.
I think one of the appeals of the band is that they’re not out of reach. James and the band got fame a lot later than most people in music and that’s one of the things that makes you feel that they’re not one step removed from the audience like a lot of bands are. They could be people you know, I guess.