LCD Soundsystem: when something great is gone

Those instantly familiar piano chords from “All My Friends” start up. Then the rollicking bass comes in, followed by the drums, and then James Murphy begins.

That’s how it starts / We go back to your house / You check the charts / And start to figure it out…

The camera pans from Murphy to Nancy Whang on keys, to Al Doyle on guitar, to Pat Mahoney on drums, to the crowd, where slow-motioned shots show thousands of fans bathed in sweat getting right into one of the greatest indie rock songs ever released.

I’m at the first Melbourne screening of Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem’s final concert at Madison Square Garden. The concert took place at 9pm New York time on Saturday April 2 2011, which corresponded to 11am Sunday April 3 here. I’d been a huge fan since the start of 2010, seen them perform live at Festival Hall that year with Hot Chip (the second-best gig I’ve ever seen behind U2) and thankfully Pitchfork streamed the MSG concert in full – I danced up an absolute storm in my study room in a blue singlet and boxer shorts for the next four hours.

Shut Up premiered at Sundance in January and was finally confirmed for a Melbourne showing a few weeks ago, through the Melbourne International Film Festival.

I bought a ticket immediately and by the time the showing came around an endless stream of positive reviews had rolled in, praising the sound, the filming, the songs, the emotion.

The emotion. Back to the film. About the time Murphy got to the line “You drop the first ten years just as fast as you can / and the next ten people who are trying to be polite” I started to choke up. By the time the song had reached its swirling crescendo I was barely containing tears as I sang along.

With a face like a dad and a laughable stand
You can sleep on the plane or review what you said
When you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tan
You think over and over hey I’m finally dead
If the trip and the plan come apart in your hand
You can turn it on yourself you ridiculous clown
You’ll forget what you meant you read what you said
Yeah we knew were you tired but then where are your friends tonight?

The song means so much to so many people, as evidenced by its use in the official trailer, below. But it was just one moment of an amazing film that captures perfectly the essence of the greatest band of the past decade.

Shut Up is anchored by an interview between Murphy and Chuck Klosterman, a 40-year-old red-bearded author, essayist and pop culture writer. It could have seemed forced, or lacklustre, had Klosterman not asked the right questions, or Murphy been disinterested, or the directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace just used footage of the interview, but questions from Klosterman and answers from Murphy are expertly interwoven into other footage – Murphy making coffee, riding the subway, walking down New York streets, and so on.

Many of these shots are taken from the day after the concert. Murphy wakes up to more than a dozen messages on his phone, and ignores calls as he puts pants on, shaves, walks his dog. He eventually goes to meet his manager, Keith Wood, who gives him a small replica of Madison Square Garden. Later, Murphy goes to the storage space where all the band’s equipment is being kept post-show. In one of the most emotionally stark scenes, Murphy breaks down in tears as he realises just how much LCD Soundsystem has meant to him.

The Q&A between himself and Klosterman is often poignant. Probably my favourite part of the film is when Klosterman asks Murphy about his age. “I was 38 and I decided to make a record. I blinked and I was 41. Blink twice more and I’m 50,” comes Murphy’s answer. The film then cuts back to the concert, about halfway through the epic “Someone Great” and the sheer gravity of the music hits you like a ton of bricks, and you can tell it’s hitting Murphy too – he is looking down to the right of screen, seemingly forlorn, but obviously caught up in the moment. As the song ends he wipes his eyes with a cloth and shares a smile and a few quick words with Nancy.

The concert footage is masterfully shot. It splices aerial, front, side-on and upward-looking shots of the band with wonderfully timed crowd reactions – a couple kiss during one song, Donald Glover appears for half a second in another, Aziz Ansari crowd-surfs during “Yeah”, and a young teenager overwhelmed with emotion is shown multiple times in tears – he has become known as “Crying Boy”, and the audience in the theatre laughs whenever he appears. I simply smile, knowing full well I’d have reacted the same way.

The band played some 29 songs over three and three quarter hours that night, and the film documents in full or in part some of the highlights – euphoric opener “Dance Yrself Clean”, “All My Friends”, the “Shame on You” part of “45:33”, featuring an endless entertaining Reggie Watts on vocals, “Sound of Silver”, “Us v Them”, Arcade Fire guesting on “North American Scum” (the film’s title came from Win Butler’s ad-libbed “shut up and play the hits” as Murphy rambled on about their relationship with the Canadian rock band), the decidedly punk-rock “Movement” (“It’s just a fat guy in a t-shirt doing all the singing”), “Yeah”, “Someone Great”, “Losing My Edge”, Harry Nilsson cover “Jump Into The Fire” and the emotionally gripping finale “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”.

“New York” is the last song on the band’s seminal 2007 album Sound of Silver and was performed as the last song at nearly all the band’s concerts from then on. Here, though, it packs an emotional weight rarely seen in live performances. This is the last time the band will ever play this song, and Murphy is acutely aware of that fact. It takes him a few minutes to get through the opening lines.

“This is our last song,” he tells the crowd, who let out a collective, deflated “ohhh”. But Murphy reminds them this is a time for happy reflection, not bitter sadness. He thanks all the people who have made the band’s 10-year career possible, thanks the crowd, thanks his family – “I’m wearing my dad’s watch” – before taking up the opening line as Nancy plays the piano in time.

New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down…

The band comes crashing in after a minute or two and it is as heart-warming as it is heart-wrenching. I lose it for the second time as hundreds of white balloons are released from the ceiling, raining down on the crowd as one of the greatest farewells comes to an amazing conclusion. Once Murphy has finished his singing he kicks a balloon into the crowd and then makes his way from the stage, hugging all his friends as the most genuine smile you’ll ever spreads across his face.

Klosterman tells Murphy his theory that while bands are fondly remembered for all their successes, they are defined by their biggest failure and asks Murphy for his.

Murphy ponders the question and then says that maybe it’s ending the band. And maybe that’s true; there are few, if any, bands around who can bring dance and punk and rock and all the rest of it together, and have it be so thrilling, so captivating, so emotional. But watching this film, you can’t begrudge him for ending it.

As the film’s tagline says, “if it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.” And that’s exactly what that final concert was. I’m a huge fan of the band, and would love to see them back some day, but it ended so perfectly, and with so much love, that maybe, as Murphy says, it’s the right decision.

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