Saturday, November 10, 2007
As much as I admire Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ there is something a bit false and self congratulatory about it. The Band, especially Robbie Robertson, in Scorsese’s film seem set on presenting themselves as not just a group calling it quits, but as the end of an entire period. Because of this, and despite the fact that it is filled with wonderful performances, the film suffers under its own false sense of importance.
Of course the truth of the matter is that most bands don’t have the send off The Band did (actually neither did The Band as a series of reunions without Robertson would show). The great endings are typically hidden and sad, or at times both. Whether it is a beaten and disappointed Lou Reed playing “After Hours” one final time at Max’s Kansas City, or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd splintering apart to half empty arenas as a support act, most of rock’s great final acts are as far removed from THE LAST WALTZ as possible.
Matthew Buzzell’s moving account of the last days of Luna, TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME, is one of the great rock documentaries. It is also one of the most intimate, from the opening shots of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips embracing in their apartment just before their final show to the touching final moment of Wareham’s young son strumming a guitar, TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME is one of the warmest and most honest accounts of a band’s final days ever committed to the screen.
Luna, despite being one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last couple of decades, never broke into the mainstream. Of course that can be viewed as a good thing artistically, but financially it was obviously very hard on them. TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME makes clear that being an acclaimed rock musician doesn’t automatically spell out big bucks, and the numerous moments in the film where we are reminded of this are particularly poignant..
What makes Buzzell’s TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME work so well is just how genuine it is. Without ever throwing it in your face, Buzzell manages to get across the fact that Luna were an important band who not only meant a lot to their fans, but also the members themselves. From the striking moment where we see Luna playing their last song together in front of an adoring New York crowd, to the many images of them on the road in their little van traveling from city to city, TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME works as both a rock documentary and a striking character study of four very talented and down to earth people.
Luna, for those who don’t know, started out after the legendary Dean Wareham left Galaxie 500 in the early part of the nineties. The band was originally a trio with Wareham on guitar and vocals, joined by Stanley Demeskie on drums and Justin Harwood on bass. The band really came together when Wareham brought in a phenomenal guitar player named Sean Eden to record their second full the length album, the masterful BEWITCHED. The twin guitar attack of Wareham and Eden quickly became the most notable since probably Verlaine and Lloyd in Television, and the music they made throughout the nineties and the early part of this decade is some of most intelligent and powerful of the modern rock era.
TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME captures the band’s final lineup (Wareham, Eden, drummer Lee Wall and Bassist Britta Phillips) on their last tour in 2004. We follow the band as they travel to Japan, Europe and finally through a series of shows throughout the States. Buzzell’s fly on the wall direction is superb and it’s his visual sense and intelligence that separates the film from any other rock documentary since the seventies.
The film is incredibly moving, although remarkably it is never overly sentimental. Buzzell’s work captures for artists simultaneously at their most powerful and vulnerable, and it never veers into the nostalgic puff piece it could have been. The members of the band are all remarkable in just how sober and realistic they are towards their circumstances, and not even the fact that the only way they will make any money is by selling t-shirts seems to derail them. TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME is one of the most triumphant films about the importance of art over commerce ever released, and finally it almost seems fitting that a band as pure and brilliant as Luna didn’t ‘make it’ commercially.
TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME slyly points out the tragedy of the modern record industry as well. At one point Wareham laments over the fact that if a writer sells 100,000 copies of a book he is a success, but a band doing the same on a major label is considered a failure. Again, Buzzell doesn’t slap you across the face to make a point; he just allows the image to point out the ridiculousness that a band like Luna could be considered a failure by anyone.
Outside of the fantastic concert clips that run through the film, my favorite moments are the relatively quiet ones. I love the way Buzzell will often focus on the striking face of Dean Wareham as he is just listening. This happens throughout the film. One such instance is towards the beginning when Britta Phillips is reading the band’s break up press release (which by the way works brilliantly as a scene, as it introduces the band very quickly to newcomers) and we see Wareham in the background listening intently, and smiling sweetly when she mentions Rolling Stone voted PENTHOUSE one of the best albums of the nineties. Another instance comes later in the film when it seems that Wareham and Eden are on the verge of having a fight and Buzzell focuses on each of their frustrated faces, giving the film an almost Cassavetes like intensity.
Most striking are the many shots of the band traveling. Whether they are walking through the busy streets of Tokyo, or driving their small van in Blizzard like conditions in the Midwest, there is never a moment where the film isn’t visually interesting. Even shots that could be mundane, like the band setting up their equipment or counting out their t-shirts, are kept interesting by Buzzell’s shooting style. These shots also say a million things about Luna as a group…it’s hard to imagine a shot of Robbie Robertson setting up his own equipment or worrying about t-shirt sales in THE LAST WALTZ. TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME shows Luna as a D.U.I. band till the end in the truest sense of the term.
And then there is the music…how wonderful that Luna stopped when they did, as they were in their absolute prime here. All four members are playing wonderfully and they are locked down in a perfect cohesive force together. From Eden’s astonishing guitar leads to Phillip’s fluid and inventive bass lines, Luna show themselves clearly as one of the best bands of the last thirty years. We hear tracks off most of their albums, and some covers. A particularly haunting EVERYBODY’S TALKING towards the end seems to sum up the band as much as any song could. It is hard to imagine a dry eye among fans of the band as Wareham sings, “I won’t let you leave my love behind” with some of the most powerful conviction of his entire career. I have heard some complaints about the songs not being presented in complete clips, but the main point of the film to me is Luna off the stage, so while I would have loved more performances…I finally don’t miss them.
The film is also very funny and heartfelt. The four of them aren’t afraid to show emotion, and Buzzell isn’t afraid to show the humorous monotony of a rock band on the road. The film at times plays like a group of friends remembering and telling stories to each other. I really get the feeling from watching this film, that regardless of certain personality clashes, these four people really care about each other. There is a moment towards the end when we see Wareham embrace Eden, and it is incredibly moving and it resonates long after the closing credits.
Buzzell’s decision to begin the film essentially at the end with real life couple Wareham and Phillips embracing in their apartment is a brilliant one. It tells us immediately that while Luna is ending, the characters in the film aren’t. These are very real people and it is comforting to have these very personal opening shots to remind us of it. Most rock films are content to present its subjects as mythic supermen…TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME joins the ranks of a film like ELVIS ON TOUR as a work that isn’t afraid to point out the even in a world class rock band, groups are still made up of very fragile human beings in need of the same universal things we all are...love, respect, friendship and compassion.
Matthew Buzzell’s film is available from Rhino in a great special edition that includes an entertaining commentary track, some complete performances, deleted scenes and the trailer. The disc is widescreen and captures this beautifully shot and sounding film very well.
Luna was a special band made up of four very distinctive figures in popular music. TELL ME DO YOU MISS ME is a wonderful final chapter for their career. Music and film fans in general should seek it out immediately.
For more on Luna, please visit A Head Full Of Wishes and Fuzzy Wuzzy.
Also check out Matthew's Myspace and his IMDB listing for more.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE: I was fortunate enough to meet the legendary Velvet Underground guitar player Sterling Morrison less than a year before his untimely death, when my friend Ryan and I witnessed a gig he did with Moe Tucker. One thing I asked him about was Luna, as not only had the Wareham and company been asked to open for the Velvets when they reunited in the early nineties, but Morrison had actually appeared on the BEWITCHED album playing guitar. The guitar icon mentioned to me how much the Velvets admired Wareham and Luna, and he also pointed out that "We didn't really want any other band opening for us". If anyone ever needed reminding of how great Luna was, then let that stand as one...