Shut Up and Play the Hits was produced by Oscilloscope Laboratories (one of the last projects founder Adam Yauch worked on personally) and played in select US cities as a one night only event meant to feel like a concert experience. Filmmakers Will Southern and Dylan Lovelace used scattered moments of a 48 hour timeline to tell the story of a guy who plays the biggest show of his life and then quits the band. Meaning the film intersperses footage from LCD Soundsystem’s triumphant final show at Madison Square Garden with the surreal experience of waking up the next day to find nothing has changed in the world around you. The concert footage was shot from a variety of angles by a team of 13 hand-held camera operators, including Spike Jonze who is responsible for a particularly ridiculous sequence of a couple making out wildly while continuing to dance. But the film’s real power lies in its ability to recreate, as accurately as possible, the impression of that experience from the point of view of James Murphy – the man who was the band.
Tickets for the MSG show sold out in less than an hour. Probably closer to 15 minutes. Outraged by scalpers who had immediately posted tickets at inflated prices, Murphy announced via Twitter that there would be a series of shows at Terminal 5 in the week leading up to the finale. Maybe he wanted to prolong the goodbye, maybe the band needed a warm-up, regardless of their reasons those shows quickly became the stuff of legend. One of the rare New York City experiences that would be planned instead of spontaneous, repeated on consecutive nights but still guaranteed to be one of those moments you definitely did not want to miss. For those that came out to any of the five nights, the band did not disappoint, rolling out massive set lists separated in three parts with the never-performed 45:33 (featuring an incredible guest appearance by Reggie Watts) serving as an intermission between the sections filled out for the most part with songs referenced in the Win Butler quote that became the movie’s title. It was a bittersweet moment. We never wanted it to end, but if it had to go, well, this was a pretty good fucking farewell.
I was there.
The film uses a 2010 interview by revered culture writer Chuck Klosterman as a through-line, and at one point he tells Murphy he thinks “Losing My Edge” (LCD’s first single) was his greatest addition to the rock and roll pantheon. He might be right. Murphy was fearlessly specific, naming names right from the beginning. From their inception DFA and LCD Soundsystem created a record store mystique with small batch releases that felt like collector’s items the day they came out. Murphy always had an acute attention to detail and took pleasure in being the king of the obscure reference (even admitting recently that the blue on This Is Happening was cribbed from the Smiths’ UK only Hatful of Hollow cover). LCD had a refreshing DIY aesthetic that helped them create a space completely outside of music industry trends and seemed to say, “We may not be a great band but we know what’s cool and have the record collection to prove it.” They were clever imitators that weren’t afraid to poach from the highlights of their favorite artists and gave music writers the simultaneous joy and pain of connecting the dots that tied them to all the things they loved. Instead of trying to disguise his influences or showing contrition when someone followed a trail of clues that led to the discovery of some source of inspiration, James Murphy often laughed that he hoped to make a song half as good as Lou Reed or David Bowie or Liquid Liquid or a dozen other bands whose songs stayed stuck in his head and came back to life in his own work.
We could be heroes, just for one day…
Murphy has often talked about being in awe of these mythological rock gods and how he wanted to preserve the mystery surrounding them so he could keep believing in their legend. Ironically, for the few but fervent fans of the band, he’s become a similar figure. Maybe that’s why it’s so funny when Hits goes out of its way to show him as the extra-ordinary superhero. One scene he’s using his band to whip MSG into a frenzy, the next he’s walking down the streets of Brooklyn where his French Bulldog gets more attention than he does. It’s these moments that speak to the state of modern culture where we’re never content with persona, always desperate to peer behind the curtain at “reality.” Murphy himself has never shied away from this, forever over-explaining his motives, one of which turned out to be retiring the band so he can remain a semi-normal human being.
Yr City’s A Sucker
LCD Soundsystem were the ultimate New York City band; smart, cool, stylish, plugged in, always appearing not to give a shit while secretly reading everything written about them the next day. The sound, the references, the attitude were all a direct reflection of what it means to put up with the city’s day to day bullshit. Their songs captured a place full of talented but underachieving adults struggling with the need to grow up but still wanting the thrill of being a kid. LCD’s music gave them the freedom to act on that impulse while finding some comfort that there were so many others that felt exactly the same way. One of my favorite parts of Shut Up and Play the Hits is the way it captures the simple idea of a New York band having New York experiences. Riding the subway with your eyes closed. Telling the cabbie three times how to get to Williamsburg. Eating at now famous but still comfortable spots like Marlow & Sons. When the concert, film and ultimately the band ended to the strains of Murphy’s own decidedly anti-Sinatra anthem, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” (at most of the finale shows it also included a brief interpolation of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”) it made perfect sense to the hometown audiences.
I wish that we could talk about it…
I always had the impression that LCD Soundsystem was partly James Murphy trying to combat loneliness by surrounding himself with friends to help him play his music. He never denied this assertion and the movie only reinforces the idea. Just after leaving the stage of the band’s final performance he asks, “Did we just pull off the biggest high school play ever at Madison Square Garden,” with a look of content but confused accomplishment. James Murphy was no one’s idea of a rock star. He was a super articulate, out of shape, music encyclopedia, “with a face like a dad.” Humble yet cocky, he often came off like a dick but only because he wanted everything to be great and it wasn’t.
LCD Soundsystem allowed him a persona and a voice where he hit the universal and specific with equal aim, even adopting a hip-hop bravado with simple lines like, “Everybody keeps talking about it, nobody’s getting it done.” For far too long we underestimated his lyrics because the music loomed so large. Caught up in the push/pull of the rhythm I missed some of the wisdom hidden inside what were essentially dance tracks. “Someone Great”, a song that started out as the jaw-dropping, speaker-rattling, “WTF was that?” instrumental section on 45:33 before becoming a fully-formed highlight on the band’s second LP Sound of Silver, might be the best example. It wasn’t until I’d listened to it countless times that I finally realized he was describing the death of his parents with a novelists’ precision. “North American Scum” might be a ridiculous parody but also describes a very real experience for any American who traveled through Europe during the W Bush Administration. The universal resonance found in “All My Friends” might still inspire DJ’s to play it at birthdays, Irish wakes and New Years parties for decades to come. But by the time we got to This Is Happening it was clear from his words that Murphy had exhausted the platform and was ready to stay home, presumably to make increasingly better coffee.
You could dissect their records for years to come but nothing would prepare you for the controlled frenzy and ecstatic bliss of their live shows. Those started out as, and remained about two things – dancing and drinking. James even famously invented his own cocktail before one the shows – whiskey and champagne, which he seemed to have been sampling heavily before getting the mix right. One thing you can’t escape when looking at the album credits is just how much of LCD Soundsystem is simply James Murphy, but in order to achieve the massive sound he envisioned (see band name) he was going to need help. When the band is on stage they become a conglomeration of well-executed parts that all bring a distinct element to the whole and have only gotten bigger and better as the years have gone by. It was always going to be cooler to have Nancy Whang on keys. Drummer Pat Mahoney leads you straight to embarrassing, one-word rock clichés like awesome and badass. There were always guys whose names you didn’t know up there on guitar or sound effects helping make the whole thing work.
The untold secret is that over the years, LCD Soundsystem became a very good band working at unforeseen degrees of difficulty creating ridiculously fun concerts that still managed to feel more like a warehouse party even well after their relative fame set in. Inevitably at an LCD show there would be a moment of revelation when you realized that songs like “Us vs. Them” were less album cuts and more call-and-response vehicles designed to get the entire crowd involved. Or a similar moment of enlightenment may have hit when you found yourself chanting along with the entire building to “Yeah, yeah, yeah, ye-ye-ye-yeah, Yeah, ye-ye-ye-ye-ye-yeah.”.
Jump Into The Fire
The centerpiece of Shut Up and Play the Hits is the concert at Madison Square Garden. There are rapturous crowd shots, including panda suits and hipster tears more than once. There are members of Arcade Fire thrown into the role of back-up singers who come off like LCD SuperFans just happy to have been invited. There are two great sequences with Reggie Watts both onstage and off where he goes head to head with James Murphy during their recreation of Part 1 of 45:33. There’s also the instantly recognizable face of Aziz Ansari lost in a moment of pure joy as he crowd surfs to the front of the stage, where apparently he was being escorted out before using his celebrity to get let back into the show. I was a little surprised that the only song included from This Is Happening was “Dance Yrself Clean” (possibly the greatest show opener of all time) but there’s no debating the effectiveness of the footage which is just like the shows – messy, a little out of control and a whole lot of fun.
Look around you, you’re surrounded, it won’t get any better
There’s a shot near the end of the film where Murphy is forced to survey the band’s gear before it’s sold off. His back is to the camera but that doesn’t hide his tears. It’s an emotional moment that makes the idea of the band’s demise feel very real. You can try to understand the logic of James Murphy not wanting to jump around a stage past the age of 40 or agree with the idea of quitting while you’re ahead but when someone is doing something you love and doing it better than ever it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Still too many actors, musicians and entertainers push their careers well past the sell-by date leaving their legacy with a sour taste at the end. Maybe this is the preferred method, like the rare sports greats that retire at the top of their game and leave a void in their absence, maybe there is no next LCD Soundsystem. Maybe they captured a moment in time and sadly, that time is over. In the closing sequence of the Klosterman interview he asks Murphy what his biggest failure might be. After politely ducking the question and claiming to be proud of everything the band has done he pauses before saying, “It might be this. Stopping.” It’s still too soon to judge but for my own selfish reasons I’d tend to agree.