After seeing the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits for the first time in the dark of Cinematheque last week, I can see why audiences at SXSW danced in the aisles and applauded each concert segment. The Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern film, which records James Murphy and Co.’s last performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011, utilizes the immensity of sound and camera shots to immerse you so deeply in the music that you forget you’re not actually at a live show. You feel every slow motion bounce and crush of the crowd and every shake of atomized perspiration from the band and fans alike. LCD Soundsystem’s signature locked grooves become deliciously long dance parties as the band rocks and hustles in equal measure. The film even captures that numb moment that comes after a monumental gig where you can barely move your adrenaline-drained legs, blinking in the house lights made hazy by the last vestiges of dry ice drifting to the rafters like the gunsmoke of a particularly intense battle, or the incense in a particularly mind-altering ritual. Despite the mesmerizing atmosphere of this footage, the film captures something else quite specific to LCD Soundsystem. When Murphy’s hands come down to instigate the descent of a giant disco ball for “Us V. Them,” his face is filled with a beatific satisfaction that somehow mocks its own self-assured performance. It’s as if he cannot let himself get too earnest about the enormity of the event he’s created. It’s like he’s thinking about how much he’s orchestrated this. It’s a show, and a documentary for that matter, that draws attention to its own obviousness and intentions.
A pre-farewell Chuck Klosterman interview provides a thematic framework for the film as it is interspersed between concert performances and over the scenes of Murphy’s post-LCD Soundsystem mundanity, adding meaning and depth to scenes of Murphy shaving, making coffee, rolling about on his swivel chair, staring out windows, and walking his French bulldog. Offstage, Murphy’s spectrum of emotions seems to be comprised of wry, bemused, or asleep. These down moments provide a contrast that makes the concert portions buzz with a preternatural quality. The continuous rise and fall of the energy heightens the effect of both moods whilst commenting on its own meta-state. At the beginning of the interview, there’s a great moment of doubling self-awareness: when Klosterman asks if it’s okay if he records this interview, Murphy replies with “sure, do you mind if I record this interview?” The film has been most often compared with The Band’s The Last Waltz, but this final recorded performance can also be seen as the death of Ziggy Stardust without the loophole. At one point in the interview, Murphy does mention Bowie as an untouchable idol, whilst casting himself as the everyman, greying anti-hero. Klosterman interjects by saying that Murphy has become an idol in spite of, and perhaps just as much because of, his commonplace, unglamourous image. His is still a performance, which I think attracts just as much scrutiny to itself as Bowie’s satin and tat. Klosterman quite rightly points out Murphy’s most prominent characteristic: self-consciousness.
The LCD Soundsystem oeuvre is dominated by the meaninglessness of repetition in the postmodern condition or the self-aware ennui and pose of New York City parties. The idea behind this last performance and its deliberate self-documentation isn’t that far away from a Flickr stream of ironic Polaroids. From penning the so-called hipster anthem “Losing My Edge,” to raiding older musical references in the manner of a one-man cultural capital bazaar, to creating a “pretentious version” of “Yeah,” to receiving a full discography analysis by Pitchfork, LCD Soundsystem is of the early-twenty-first-century hipster moment. Some may argue that the seppuku of LCD Soundsystem coincides with the “death of the hipster.” However and whenever the hipster may or may not die, it seemed to be born in the socioeconomic and cultural stew, which includes the rise of the so-called “creative class” of a late capitalism running on its own fumes, the dissatisfied middle class’s realization of its own stagnation and uncertain footing at the turn of the millennium, and the exhausting infinite present in the Internet age of globalized connectivity. The hipster is a hyper-controlled performance of supposedly empty signifiers, Baudrillardian simulacra in impossibly tight, ultimately impotent, trousers. The hipster is self-aware, building an artificial authenticity or an authentic artifice in an attempt to preclude taste judgements and clichés that move at the speed of light. In the accelerated proving of credentials, hipsters eat themselves as much as pop does. They are part of a self-defeating identity group that fosters belonging by denying belonging to the group. In recognizing hipsters, you are somehow already implicated in their miasmic stigma. What happens when you ironize arguably the most ironic subculture? James Murphy has come to embody the anti-hipster hipster, or an aging hipster, which seems automatically to negate hipsterdom, in which novelty and youth are its defining qualities, even if the novelty is nearly always filtered through retro lenses. Murphy and his band concept are a hipster paradox. He is ironic about pretension and knowing about his knowingness. His seemingly ironic detachment appears to come from a seen-it-all-before world weariness because he is actually older, not because he could Google everything on a phone. I think it’s too easy to apply the hipster tag, which gets bandied about a fair bit; however, I’m starting to think that the dissonance I feel about LCD Soundsystem, and by extension, Shut Up and Play the Hits, is related to Murphy’s ethos, which allows for the simultaneous existence of the romantic nostalgia of the person who thinks too much and the cynical retro of the hipster who has access to too much. He creates music infused with timelessness and faddishness, two sides of the same youth ideology.
That tension is perhaps the magic of the film and the LCD Soundsystem story: mythologizing the demythologizing. You can view Murphy in a context other than hipsterdom, including the power of music fandom. Focused, meticulous people are also often the most obsessive-compulsive fans/critics; think of some of Murphy’s musical heroes, like David Bowie and The Smiths, who were also scrupulously controlled in their performances, images, and artistic “packages.” Murphy is musically referential as Morrissey was lyrically referential, retaining a fastidious interest in presentation down to the Hatful of Hollow blue used on the cover of This Is Happening. Murphy is a compelling performer in his own idiosyncratic right. The concert footage of Shut Up and Play the Hits reminded me just how much I love his sardonic half-talking bits and his wild, desperate yelps that become frantic leaps into hysterical falsetto. I couldn’t keep my legs from bouncing during the “Homosapien”-aping “North American Scum,” which featured back-up shout-chanting from members of The Arcade Fire, and the infinite rock-out of LCD Soundsystem’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” melted me into my movie theatre chair. On the related flipside to scenester party anthems like these, the live entity of LCD Soundsystem brings the same ardent presence to the low-key melancholy. As I feel both the anxiety and relief of aging and mortality myself, I’m particularly drawn to these songs along with Murphy’s comments in the film about his fears and needs as time moves on. The bittersweetness that pervades songs like “All My Friends,” “Someone Great,” and concert-closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is connected to a sense of loss and the relentlessness of time. “All My Friends,” which creates one of the biggest moments of the documentary, takes the insistent piano of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and strings it out into a nostalgic middle-age wasteland that is both triumphant and tired.
The crux of the film comes close to the end of the Klosterman interview. He posits that people are remembered for their successes but defined by their failures, and pushes Murphy to articulate what LCD Soundsystem’s biggest failure will be. After much evasion, it transpires that Murphy thinks their biggest failure may be stopping. In that admission, he turns his canny preclusion into wistful heartbreak.
As Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” kicks in at the credits, I couldn’t help but smile at how even this choice was perfectly orchestrated. The song is at once so terribly funny and so terribly sad, which seems to sum up Murphy’s persona quite neatly. It’s a self-fulfilling failure narrative and pre-emptive break-up strike with those brilliant synth honks that sound like a clown’s nose. The theme of borrowed time and planned beginnings and endings is more than apt for the LCD Soundsystem story: “This is one scene that’s going to be played my way.” At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that Klosterman has already articulated the fact James Murphy can’t completely control others’ perception and level of engagement with what he does. In the end, perhaps in spite of Murphy’s attempts at detachment, LCD Soundsystem was clearly not a meaningless pose. If only because of that weeping teenage boy in the last shot of the film. Shut Up and Play the Hits shows that you can actually dance yourself clean notwithstanding the elision of vowels in hipster electronic vernacular. This is not a film for aloof head bobbing. Murphy and his backing band played the hits and they spoke louder than the best laid plans.
The Shut Up and Play the Hits DVD set is available on October 9.