Somewhere around the end of Shut Up and Play the Hits, LCD Soundsystem’s manager Keith Woods hands James Murphy a miniature replica of Madison Square Garden. It’s engraved with the date of the night before — April 2, 2011 — and is a gift from the venue, Manhattan’s largest, as a congratulation to the band on their sold-out performance. In the scene Woods leaves the room for a moment as Murphy blankly stares at his trophy, unsure what to make of it. “This is a sad statue, dude,” he blurts out when his old friend returns. It is one of the many bittersweet moments of the documentary that follows James Murphy on the night-of and day-after LCD Soundsystem’s last ever show together. The film hits stateside theaters for one night only, July 18 (find screenings here), and viewers beware: James Murphy cries once during the movie, and so will you.
For LCD Soundsystem fans, James Murphy is an enigma. The man is beloved for being a contrarian, a sarcastic sass, a quick-witted, tongue-in-cheek lyricist and thus, a purveyor of the sort of cool that many of his fans find idol-worthy. For said fans, it’s just as difficult to imagine Murphy as a sentimental sad-sack as it is to be anything but exactly that during the beautifully constructed heartbreak of songs like “Someone Great,” “All My Friends,” or “New York, I Love You.” There’s something to be said for the fact that the man has practically mastered the perfect balance between restraint and intimacy.
Released by Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope production company, Shut Up and Play the Hits follows this theme with its main character. “It can be pretty clear when a band starts, but perhaps less so when it ends, or how it should end,” Yauch said of the film shortly before his passing. “In that sense, it’s brilliant of James to end it in such a definitive way.” While the audience gets a voyeuristic look into Murphy’s life for the day after his last as frontman of his now-legendary band — watching him cuddle his pug in bed, shave his beard, ride the train, talk on the phone with loved ones — they may not get exactly what they’re looking for. That is, Murphy never really gives a plainly stated answer to the biggest question revolving LCD Soundsystem’s break-up, the same question that underlies the whole documentary as well: “Why?” Or rather, “Why now?”
That’s not for a lack of trying, though. Between day-after footage and tapes from the concert the night before are clips from a face-to-face interview between Murphy and music critic Chuck Klosterman. The journalist tries so often to get the singer to show some definite point of enlightenment or breaking point — “When you start a band do you imagine how it will end?” “Do you feel regret?” “It’s my feeling that bands are defined by their biggest failure. What’s your biggest failure? Is it this?” — but Murphy is careful with his words and often lets Klosterman guess the answers to his own questions. The answers Murphy does give are frustratingly reasonable: The band was only created to put out one record and play one party to begin with. The trials of touring and age have taken a toll on his health. He wants to have kids one day. He also says that disbanding his group may have been the worst decision he’s ever made. Then again, maybe it’s the best.
The best scenes, however, are those taken from that now-legendary last show at Madison Square Garden. The same feeling of nervous excitement and melancholy goodbyes between the band members and fans translates through the screen just as strongly as it did on that night. (It also makes us acutely aware that, though this is a film about an entire band, most of the band never appears in the film outside of this stage setting.) We’re given a band and pit perspective of the performance of entire songs like “Dance Yrself Clean,” “Yeah,” “Us vs. Them,” “North American Scum,” part of “45:33” — it’s hard not to want to sing along and relive a little. There’s shots of revelry, of course: A full-screen view of a perma-jumping mosh-pit, crowd-surfing Aziz Ansari, wide-eyed Donald Glover and Spike Jonze (the latter shot some of the film), hugs between family members, shadowy make-outs under the sparkle of a disco ball.
But the most vivid feelings associated with that last night are captured in close-ups of the sweaty, desperate, emotionally wrangled faces of those fans who scream along to the band’s hits from the sardine-packed pit. One teenage boy in particular stands out, as the camera watches him bawl uncontrollably in almost every shot taken of the crowd during the length of the concert. Later in the film Murphy finally breaks into tears too, after surveying the band’s equipment before it’s sold or packed away. These tears are strangely comforting. Not because they’re a sign of joy or sadness, but because of the shared understanding that it’s okay to cry when something great is gone.
Shut Up and Play the Hits opens tomorrow. Find a theater at the Oscilloscope website, and watch the trailer below: