In doing a little self-editing of my reviews previously published in this fine 'zine, it has occurred to me that I perhaps take too long to get to the damn point.
I promise all of you reading this that I did so only, well mostly, with your best interests at heart -- in the interest of truth, your tight wallet, the dignity of your record collection -- but also creating an interesting read. Of course, there's a chance that readers don't want all this sociopolitical musical trend analysis mixed in with your album reviews, just something short and utilitarian. ("Am I going to like the new Atari Teenage Riot or not, Michelle?") And granted, four or five paragraphs seems a long time to get to what the heart of this review is going to say about Radiohead's documentary film, "Meeting People is Easy," directed by Grant Gee.
Which is that it's gripping, amazing and a must-see, even if you've never thought of Radiohead as your kind of band. Whether you like Radiohead or not hardly matters. In fact, if you're a Radiohead fan, you might even be disappointed with "Meeting People Is Easy," as Gee's camera rarely is content with simple, detailed shots of the band live. Instead, Gee eschews that emphasis for a much greater statement about what it's like to do just over a hundred shows in eleven months. What may end up bitterly disappointing some Radiohead fans is that to a great extent, "Meeting People is Easy" sacrifices one-half of the usual goals of the rockumentary genre, which is to show footage of the band playing their music.
Which is perhaps appropriate, since the premise of "Meeting People is Easy" is this: Radiohead's music is the last thing that anyone in the music press, at EMI Records, at any of the stadiums, at the afterhours parties, is thinking about as the band journeys to the center of the star machine. Gee elicits new meanings out of Radiohead songs like "Creep," "Exit Music (For a Film)" and "Electioneering," making them seem almost like they were meant to be a running commentary on the distance Radiohead feels from their audience as they travel the world to meet it. In this context, these songs feel like desperate little notes in a bottle sent into the vast, empty ocean from the shore of a deserted island, its sender praying for, but not hoping for, a meaningful response.
Gee is very good at conveying that deserted island, i.e. EMI's carefully-constructed, emotionally sterile world of ever-changing cities, harsh fluorescent-lit airports, dimly lit limousines, or stages with blinding white and ethereal reds, blues and purples. It's a world that has very little to do with reality, an existence of constant hurry up and wait, of standing this way while flashbulbs assault the band for twenty minutes, of talking to journalists for the 80th time about how the band formed, of saying the phrase "Hi, this is Radiohead and you're listening to..." so many times in so many different languages that the band feels like a bunch of gibbering marionettes. For a band that has even a small amount of integrity when they first get on the plane, the whole experience is enough to drive one crazy. And indeed, as the film progresses, the members of Radiohead becoming increasingly disturbed and discontent with flitting through this surreal world at a pace far too quick to enjoy or even absorb, with passing numbly through a new city each day, from New York to Tokyo.
Of course, presenting this idea as entertainment isn't new. The most famous example of this premise is played out in "The Wall" by Pink Floyd, a band which hovers over Radiohead throughout the documentary like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Future. References to this band keeps popping up in interviews with journalists who compare the two bands, as well as in conversations between band members who use Pink Floyd as a shortcut reference to refer to the kind of industry-bloated band they worry they're becoming.
As far as subject matter, Gee is not breaking new ground here. However, as he follows with his camera the aftermath of OK Computer's phenomenal success, on Radiohead's 1997-1998 tour across five continents, his strength is in very discreetly, unobtrusively giving the viewer proof in the pudding. Gee shows the viewer for himself the numbing repitition of entrances and exits, of indistinguishable airports, subways, limousines, hotels, makeshift rooms, parking lots (where, inexplicably, some interviews are conducted in the open air) that Radiohead faces in its headlong rush around the globe. In most of your average fawning rockumentaries, this extremely artificial landscape is presented in small, cute doses like an episode of "Road Rules" or "Lonely Planet." But here, the repeated moments focusing on international directional signs, white arrrows, polygonal shapes and stick figures that vaguely recall the alien stick figures that adorn OK Computer's cover art. They combine to become an almost chilling Esperanto for this strange world.
Halfway through the tour, this existence begins to take its toll. Again, Gee powerfully lets the viewer see this himself. Seemingly random bits and pieces of interviews going on throughout the tour are included almost like data in a case study. In the beginning of the tour, for example, Colin Greenwood attempts to answer the same, uninformed, insipid questions over and over again from the music press with a modicum of respect and good humor. By the seventy-fifth show or so, he is sitting before a journalist, completely slumped in his chair, shrinking into himself, defensively pulling his stocking cap over his head like a child frustrated beyond the capacity of verbal expression.
What seem at first to be gratuitously similar scenes of the band waiting backstage, taken together, paint the picture of a band hurtling quietly towards a collective nervous breakdown, or at least a break-up. Early on, we see the band members in intimate moments, comfortingly patting each other on the back. Towards the end of the documentary, we see the band members consistently standing far apart from each other and constantly plagued by far-too-bitter arguments over relatively minor issues, like who's going to do the next set of radio station i.d.'s, how long they have for soundcheck, who's going to sit through the next interview. Gee presents Radiohead's world tour as a pressure cooker for bands.
"What exactly is the pressure cooker cooking?" one might ask. In a pivotal backstage moment toward the end of the film, Gee finally gets to that, crystallizing a conclusion to which he has been building throughout the documentary: Radiohead is a band afraid. Its members are living on borrowed time in this unreal world, with nothing to do but move from faceless city to faceless city, brooding about and dreading having to come up with a good enough follow-up to OK Computer. The mindless screaming of teenage girls at the Tokyo airport and the cheers from captive audiences on "you've hit the big time" shows like MTV's 10 Spot and the The Late Show with David Letterman along the way only seem to exacerbate their suspicions that they are frauds.
This is not a case of creative block, for we see the band at one point in a makeshift studio committing to tape a brand new song that presumably will be on the next album. The real problem is hinted at right in the film's beginning. In various interviews, Radiohead's members indicate that they have little real understanding of what they did right with OK Computer. As far as they can tell, the album wasn't much different from its predecesssor, The Bends, and frankly, says Thom Yorke, they expected OK Computer to be universally panned.
This is put into a more menacing context later, in that pivotal backstage moment at the film's end, as Yorke talks grimly about how they'll never be able to top OK Computer and maybe they should just quit while they're ahead. As he says it, it's clear that he's been mulling over this idea for much of the tour.
But, Radiohead fans, don't get too scared yet. There is hope. One of the highlights of this documentary for the rabid fan is the footage of the band recording a promising new song on a rare day off. The song, "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," is fairly straightforward, less symphonic, less conceptual and more like material from The Bends or songs on OK Computer like "Electioneering" and "No Surprises." The end of the film does not appear to be the end of Radiohead.
"Meeting People is Easy" is enough to make any struggling musician think twice about wanting fame and fortune. It also gives me a little more sympathy for those whiny, pouty rock stars I would normally be quick to judge as unbecoming ingrates.
Still, I don't envy the discomfort I see in Yorke's face as he shakes hands with record company execs he's never met before, who stand with their arms folded behind their backs nervously, telling me how excited they are to "work" his art.