Film » Film Stories

The Anton Newcombe Massacre

An underground band self-destructs in the hands of its damaged leader


"I'm not for sale. I'm fucking love. I give it away." So says Anton Newcombe, the raging megalomaniac who heads the Brian Jonestown Massacre, an underground rock band determined to take over the world. First he hurls the words at the audience. Then he informs the crowd that they bought tickets, so he'll give them what they paid for. (So maybe he is for sale?) Not long after that, Newcombe kicks an audience member in the head. That must be the love part.

If you're looking for logic, you won't find it here. Newcombe may be widely regarded (by his peers, rivals, fans and members of the recording industry) as a musical genius, but he doesn't have a grip on sense. Dig!, a documentary that trails his band through seven years of drugs, onstage brawls and relational dysfunction, takes Newcombe as its anti-hero, the boy who would be great -- if only he could stand to let other people help him.

Whether or not you like this film may depend on how much interest (or patience) you have for the antics of a self-proclaimed prophet. Though the movie presents itself as a duel between two bands (the BJM and the Dandy Warhols, whose founder narrates), it's really about Newcombe and his severely damaged personality. Directed by Ondi Timoner (who edited 1,500 hours of footage down to less than two), Dig! is a solid piece of documentary, and it has things to say about the corporatization of the recording industry (mostly, how its mega-hit economics have killed plenty of good music). But that's not news. Is Newcombe? It's hard to tell.

He certainly says things that you've heard before, such as "We've got a full-scale revolution goin' on" and "I'm here to destroy the fucked-up system!" He plays at calling himself a god, or the God. It's mostly a pose, but band member Matt Hollywood believes him, pouting at Newcombe as he walks away from a fight: "In every spiritual tradition, you burn in Hell for pretending to be God and not being able to back it up!" Ah, well. Einstein he isn't.

If Newcombe is a genius, he's not altogether new. He borrows heavily from Lennon, early Stones, Lou Reed and, stylistically, from Charles Manson. His music is good, very good. It might even be great, though the lyrics are jejune. But Newcombe can't stop rehearsing his own story, playing out the cycle of success and self-sabotage ad nauseam. No sooner has he gotten a break than he fucks it up. It's amazing that he lasts even an hour at Capitol Records; you expect him to have been thrown out of the building long before that. This kind of narcissistic bullshit becomes tedious about halfway through a feature-length film. How can anybody stand to be with Anton for years?

They can't. Quite a few musicians have passed through the Brian Jonestown Massacre (about 40, according to a label Web site), many of them going on to sign with Capitol or other major labels. Whereas Newcombe is, in the words of one participant, "exactly where he started."

Actually, where he started is interesting. In the film's deepest segment, Timoner interviews Newcombe's parents, and it's easy to see where things went wrong. His mother, weary of having had to rescue Anton from trouble throughout his teenage years, has washed her hands of him. Newcombe's father, an alcoholic, left the family when his son was a toddler and failed to show up in any meaningful way thereafter. The father speaks with admirable candor about his role, or lack thereof, in Anton's life, literally taking responsibility for his son's feelings of abandonment. He even sees that "Anton feels starved for affection, for love." All of this seems bold and even healing until we learn that, not long after the interview, Anton's father committed suicide. On Anton's birthday.

Kicking an audience member in the head? Starting to make a lot more sense. Of course, Newcombe's miserable emotional life can't excuse his violence or his failure to own even the smallest of his infractions. "I don't do anything wrong. That's why I don't say I'm sorry," he informs a bandmate, even though it's plain to everyone that nearly everything Newcombe does is wrong, except for the music. Like the God thing, his belief in his own infallibility has to be a pose, but when will he grow out of it?

What's great about rival band the Dandy Warhols, and their leader Courtney Taylor, is their honesty. They admit to being blown away by Anton's talent and by his band's other attributes ("They had the fuckin' coolest hair"). From their vantage point of successful relationships, good finances and a major record label, they watch Newcombe self-destruct, all while creating unparalleled music. When Taylor describes the Brian Jonestown Massacre as a "pack of fourteen-year-old boys from abusive, broken homes set loose in the ghetto," he nails them. That's what they are. But more than anything, it's what Newcombe is. And the band can't get anywhere without him -- or with him.

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