In 1996, documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner set out to cover two aspiring West Coast bands. Though similar in many ways, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols were destined for decidedly different paths. Timoner's DIG! follows both bands over the next seven years, chronicling their attempts to make it big.
Essentially, DIG! focuses on the Brian Jonestown Massacre and its problematic leader, Anton Newcombe. Newcombe is a charismatic visionary, with talent to burn. Yet, he is also his own worst enemy, sabotaging every opportunity for his band's success. Timoner uses the Dandy Warhols, and their leader Courtney Taylor-Taylor, to juxtapose Newcombe, and even allows Taylor to narrate the film.
Newcombe and Taylor are both rivals and friends, as their bands initially have a mutual respect for each other. Both bands started up around the same time and play similar styles in music, and because of the proximity (the BJM are based in San Francisco, and the Warhols are based in Portland), the bands quickly form an alliance, appearing at several venues together. Both bands also indulge in several illicit drugs, but whereas the Warhols seem to exercise some control over their substance use, the BJM, especially Newcombe, are out of control.
When the Dandy Warhols become the first band to be signed to a major record deal (with Capitol), the relationship begins to change. Newcombe is obviously the more talented musician (he professes to be able to play over 80 instruments), and even Taylor admits he is always trying to catch up to Newcombe. However, Taylor and the Warhols' music is more accessible and the band is more focused. As Taylor quips about the fact that all four members come from happy homes, "We're the most well-adjusted band in Rock ‘n' Roll!"
Taylor does not forget his friends in the BJM though, and urges Capitol to sign them as well. Internal problems plague the BJM, and they quickly develop a reputation as an unstable act. Newcombe's ego and the band's drug abuse create a volatile atmosphere where the BJM become known almost as well for their onstage antics as their music. As Taylor narrates poignantly "If Anton felt you were screwing up a song, he would let you know immediately." Taylor says this as we watch Newcombe kick a fellow band member on stage in the middle of a song. The result is a band brawl, in a concert set up by a record company's A&R person hoping to encourage her boss to sign the BJM to a lucrative record deal.
Meanwhile, the Warhols fight the world of corporate music. Their first album for Capitol is initially rejected, and the Warhols rework it. Taylor is allowed to choose the first single, "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," and Capitol sets up a video shoot that totally misses the point of the song. Taylor also shares his single with Newcombe, hoping to get his input. Newcombe listens with apparently no reaction. A dejected Taylor is obviously hurt by Newcombe, "the irony is they're a bunch of junkies, and they don't get it," he tells the camera.
But perhaps Newcombe gets it better than Taylor realizes, as he and the BJM work on their new single "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth." Newcombe tries to create a rivalry worthy of the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones or of Blur vs. Oasis. "This would work," quips Taylor, "if we sold five million records." Even with (or perhaps because of) the Capitol machine behind them, the Warhols are still making little headway on their road to superstardom. Taylor is becoming disillusioned with corporate music, "Everything they said they'd never do, they're doing to us."
In the end, the Dandy Warhols do get a limited taste of success. Record sales in Europe and the UK allow them to play in venues of 70,000. And their reputation in America continues to grow. After several managerial changes, the Brian Jonestown Massacre do get signed to TVT, one of the largest independent labels (the current manager wisely chooses someone other than Newcombe to represent the band), but rampant drug use and continuous fighting both on and off stage causes one member to quit, and the band dissolves completely several months later.
Newcombe soldiers on as a solo act, still fighting with both the audiences and his accompaniment. As a former girlfriend puts it, "He's like a shark who has to keep moving or he'll die." Newcombe is an artist, and it is his art that makes him enduring, while his antics and ego make him repulsive. He would be easy to dismiss if he wasn't so good.
DIG! is the study of two of rock's archetypes, the self-destructive visionary whose art is more important than general acceptance, and the lesser talented friend/rival who is able to convey the vision to the masses, but perhaps not with the same intensity as the visionary. As one commentator notes, Newcombe and Taylor want to be each other, but Taylor understands the need to succeed, whereas Newcombe waits for others to catch up to his genius.
As one member of the Warhols puts it, "it's great to want to start a revolution, but at some point you have to come above ground."