SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS: The Last Days Of LCD Soundsystem [Directors Q&A]
A world of music fans (ourselves included) eagerly awaits the Sundance Film Festival debut of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS, a film that tells the story of beloved indie band LCD Soundsystem‘s last days playing music together. Part concert film, part documentary, part intimate narrative portrait of the band members’ lives—most notably, frontman James Murphy—the film, which is executive produced by The Creators Project, chronicles the build up to their final show at Madison Square Garden, as well as the immediate aftermath. What happens when you take that exit bow at the height of your career? What happens when the lights go out and reality sets in?
Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace of Pulse Films didn’t set out to make another music-related film. They had just come off a highly successful, Grammy-nominated run for their film No Distance Left to Run, which charted the history, disintegration and eventual reunion of the British band Blur, and were fairly certain that their next project would have nothing to do with music. But then they met James Murphy. There was something about the end of LCD Soundsystem’s storied run that felt important, and something about Murphy’s calm, calculated, deeply counterintuitive decision to call it quits that the duo found incredibly alluring. So they decided to make a great film… that just happened to be about a band breaking up.
We spoke with the directors over the phone to find out more about the project, how they captured the essence of that last show, and what really does happen when the lights go out.
The Creators Project: So let’s start from the beginning—how did this film project come about? I imagine you guys are both big LCD Soundsystem fans.
Dylan Southern: We met James through a friend and we knew that LCD was coming to an end because it was their final record. But when we first met, we weren’t sure what sort of project it would be. After a few chats we got along really well with James. He then told us they were going to play this final show at Madison Square Garden and it was going to be the biggest thing they would play. That suddenly felt like a really important thing to capture and it became a big part of the film.
What was the story you wanted to tell here? Obviously in some ways this is the apex of LCD’s career, but it’s also the end of it. There’s also the story of James as an individual and his personal narrative. It seems like the film really tries to capture both elements. How did you think about constructing this narrative?
WL: The thing we found really interesting was that it seemed like such a counterintuitive decision for James to end the band. To have put out three records and be in a really good position, and just decide to stop seems really interesting to us. When we talked to him about it, it didn’t seem like a big deal, it just seemed like a calm decision. That got us thinking about the idea of just stopping something. They’re not like other bands who’ve had a falling out, they’re still really good friends, they’re still making really great music. We were trying to figure out the best position to look at that idea, and that’s where the other element of incorporating the day after the show came from. It was the moment of sobriety after the event, the moment that would be the most reflective. It seemed like situating some of the story in the immediate aftermath of the show would be a good way to explore some of the reasons behind the decision.
And what did you find? Did it make for some emotionally potent material?
WL: I think so. The day afterwards was their first chance to reflect whether they’ve made the right decision or the reasons why they made the decision. I guess you can’t get a much bigger contrast than setting up MSG and then waking up the next morning and making coffee.
I’m curious about the filming of the actual concert because it must be challenging capturing such a huge event. How many cameras did you have? Was there anything unusual about your approach?
DS: When we first went to MSG we were offered the standard positions to shoot from, but we were really keen that it was shot in a different kind of way, that it wasn’t just a taping of the show, but rather a document of the event. We shot it in kind of an old school way. Rather than having camera operators and live feeds, we wanted to get a bunch of directors of photography whose work we really liked and knew we could trust. We had them shoot the experience of the concert rather than covering all the instruments. It was about being in the moment. There’s a very kind of loose spirit to the way it was filmed.
The people we got to shoot did an incredible job. Spike (Jonze) came down because he has worked with LCD before so he offered himself up to James as a cameraman. It was amazing; he got some great stuff. We chose DPs who we had worked with before or whose work we were familiar with, and some of them had never filmed music, just straight movies. It was nice to get people who don’t shoot concerts for a living because generally they find things other people might not have found. One thing we were looking at was getting across the sense of the relationships between the band members, getting a sense of the characters in the audience and the relationship between the audience and the band, and really capturing the atmosphere as much as the performance.
Atmosphere is an interesting thing to capture, especially moods and vibes of a place. Is there anything you guys did in terms of effects like lighting or post-production that you feel helped convey the essence of that experience?
DS: Our main approach was to be quite true to what actually happened. We didn’t interfere with the lighting that the band had. It was more important to capture what was there. When editing, we looked for little stories, for fans that appeared throughout the concert. There’s one particular kid who’s inconsolable, he’s crying all the way through the show. A couple cameras really honed in on him. At the end of the show he’s practically the last guy to leave the arena. He’s still crying. Finding stories like that was a really important part of it. You could see what it meant to the people there watching it.
What was the most challenging part of this shoot?
DS: The show was nearly four hours long, which was one of the hardest things. We had to create our own set list from the show for the film, which is difficult because you have to bear in mind what the story is. Throughout the concert we cut back to the day-after storyline, and so our decisions of what songs to use from the concert have to fit into the arc of that story.
WL: At first you feel like you’ve narrowed it down and then you realize that the song you chose runs for about two hours. It was tricky.
DS: We had to be really hard on ourselves to let things go. We had to be a little bit ruthless to make sure that it worked properly. But the full concert will be available later on. People will eventually get to see all of it.
That’s awesome. How were the day-after shoots, the more intimate portrait of James and the rest of the band? What was shooting that experience like and how did that contrast with the madness and energy of the concert?
DS: It was exactly that, a huge contrast. It was important to be with James immediately after so he could find what his new life is going to be like. It was a very different experience from being in Madison Square Garden.
WL: It’s an interesting structure to the film because the two voices you hear in those scenes mostly belong to Chuck Klosterman and James in an interview that took place a week before the show. The voice you hear comes from before the show and the images you see come from after the show. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. He answers questions about how he thinks he’ll feel and the shots are how he’s actually feeling. It seems to work quite well. It’s a great conversation, which in reality went on for four hours, which is as long as the show. We spoke about what the aims of the interview were and what we were looking for story-wise.
Since story arc is such a crucial element of the film, how do you define the film? Is it a documentary? Is it a narrative film?
DS: It’s a difficult film to pigeonhole. Someone might see it and say it’s a concert film because there are nine or ten songs in there. There are elements of documentary but there’s this narrative element as well. We just call it the LCD movie.
WL: The important thing is there is a story. “A film” is the easiest way of describing it.
You mentioned earlier the importance of finding little stories showing what this experience meant to people. What did it mean to you?
DS: It was incredible. The actual day of the show was a bit of a blow because we went to the after party and shot bits of that and I think it was an eighteen-hour shooting day for us. Once the show got going, you got the impression that you were at a very special, significant event. The atmosphere and performance were incredible. We felt lucky that we were the ones who were actually capturing it.
WL: We felt the build-up when planning the technical side of it. Once the fans arrived, we realized how important this was to so many people. It didn’t feel like another concert or even another last concert. It felt like this was a massive moment for everyone there.
Following its Sundance premiere, the film will tour our Creators Project events throughout the course of this year. Stay tuned for more information about screenings and other behind-the-scenes content from the film.