New York’s pre-9/11 music scene is revisited in this suitably lo-fi documentary from the makers of Shut Up and Play the Hits.
Viewed today, it’s easy to forget that 20 odd years ago, Manhattan’s Lower East Side (or LES, as it’s sometimes known) was more a grubby dive of an area than an eclectic, go-to destination with plenty of gentrified swish in its tail. In 1999, the neighbourhood’s grime put most people off. All except the immigrant communities who called it home and the creative outcasts who sought out likeminded souls.
Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s ode to this bygone era of pre-hipster New York certainly strikes a chord. Back then, rents were affordable and Napster’s file-sharing service was the big ogre seemingly out to kill music, then dominated by bubblegum pop and nu-metal copycats. Was rock ‘n’ roll really dead? Hell, no! Enter The Strokes – a band all-but born ready for world domination – plus the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio and more.
All the groups share a similar angst. Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas is anxious about the band’s rapid rise to fame. Interpol’s Paul Banks and LCD’s James Murphy are both in therapy before they’ve even started playing. But while Casablancas’ band is by far the biggest export, it is the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman Karen O who proves the most revealing, opening up about how music helped her overcome issues of identity and belonging. Similarly, LCD’s James Murphy, having driven everyone away up to this point, finally finds redemption through a chance invitation to play the UK.
As it did for other New Yorkers before them, so London’s music scene provides the golden-ticket – and massive exposure – that these bands need and deserve, having been roundly ignored by industry and media back home. The Strokes soon go supersonic. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and others follow in their wake.
Several of their narratives intersect, via montages of home video, TV footage and live recordings. Others less so. The Rapture, for instance, are introduced as the “disco Strokes” and are snapped up by James Murphy’s FDA label. But this story thread struggles to carry much weight with what’s going on around it. Understandably, the film tries to convey and cover off the scene as a whole – a big ask, with New York a character in its own right. But the jumping about from one band narrative to another can feel a little jarring at times.
There’s also not much of a payoff when Albert Hammond Jnr reconnects with his Strokes bandmates, having been forced to ditch ‘wicked’ superfan Ryan Adams – presented here as a bad influence. The band regroups to rehearse and record, but that’s about it. Equally, when The Rapture up sticks and ditch Murphy’s label for a million-dollar major, all we get from Murphy is a forlorn “I really liked them,” which carries more comedic value than intended.
The film works well, though, as a fascinating time capsule of millennial cultural history. Clinton is there, talking about the hopes, dreams and possibilities of a new century. There’s pause too to reflect on the bizarre fear that surrounded the world around the issue of Y2K. The deep scar left by 9/11 on the Big Apple in the years that followed is also keenly felt. Plus, of course, there is that glorious music – sounding as fresh and vital as it did back then – and plenty of it. With all the giddiness of the time to go with it.
Published 25 Jan 2022
Billie Eilish and her tight-knit family navigate her first half a decade of stardom in this intimate documentary.
By Ed Gibbs
A direct and intimate look at the turbulent life of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor.