“If I can see all my friends tonight”
The end of LCD Soundsystem was a seminal moment in rock and roll music history. I’m not even a fan of the band and I know this to be true. Frontman James Murphy created something that spoke to the college crowd with a mix of electronic dance beats and wittily poignant lyrics on his way to becoming a rock God/philosopher. And then he decided to call it quits after a decade. Stopping on his own terms to continue the life he led before his thirties took him to the border of superstardom, Murphy turned the band’s funeral into a celebration. Bittersweet, bombastic, and utterly heartfelt on behalf of both the artists and fans, nothing could have bottled the emotions better than Shut Up and Play the Hits.
A document of the band’s last 48-hours, directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern capture the build-up, the show, and the aftermath as a rocker transforms back into a man anonymous and ready to progress into the unknown. Teamed with editor Mark Burnett, this trio cuts and splices between past, present, and future as the music carries Murphy through his career’s final, transcendent moment. From the stark white sheets of his bed the morning after contrasted against his dark-haired dog to the writhing orgy of kinetic energy swirling beneath the stage at the show to the distracting calm of roaming a quiet Madison Square Garden in order to pass out commemorative leather bracelets to all helping make the night unforgettable, this film is much more than just another concert.
Here I am, an LCD Soundsystem novice who only ever listened to their last album This is Happening before dismissing them as a band I didn’t care to hear again except in passing, and I have what is thus far a stellar disc in Sound of Silver playing as I write. With “North American Scum”, “All My Friends”, and “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” it seemed to have the songs from the film I enjoyed most. I didn’t enter the movie hoping to convert myself into one of their dedicated fans; I didn’t even put it on to listen to the music. To me Shut Up and Play the Hits was intriguing due to its premise concerning a death at the height of the deceased’s brief lifespan.
As Stephen Colbert jokes during Murphy’s final TV appearance, bands either die from overdoses, over-staying their welcome, or writing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Why would someone so adored by legions of fans increasing his recognition with each album simply walk away? We look into his eyes onstage and see the genuine love of the thrill and the ability to see those he touches through his art. We peer into them the next day as he realizes the music is over, occupying his mind by hiding in an elaborate coffeemaker’s methodical process. And yet there still isn’t a definitive answer even when an interview with Chuck Klosterman from a week previous nudges in to ask the question straight out.
The film’s beauty lies in its refusal to pretend to tell us why. We watch the contagious chaos of the show; bask in the love shared by Murphy and bandmates Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney, and Tyler Pope amongst others; and listen to his candor opposite Klosterman when discussing how he never set out to do any of this. What began as the desire to create an album grew into a massive crescendo over ten years of his life; now forty-one years old with dreams to start a family, change was necessary. Is it therefore with heavy heart that he walks away? Yes. Is he certain the decision is sound? Not even close. But as with the journey’s first step, it’s last is made with full clarity and the fortitude to follow through.
With a voice conjuring new (White Lies) and old (Echo and the Bunnymen) alongside a Morrissey vibe in mannerisms if Morrissey’s highly sexualized egotism were replaced by a self-aware, intellectual compassion, it’s hard to believe James Murphy hasn’t been doing this forever. His music speaks to critics and musicians, artists trying to make it in a world that would rather crush their souls, and those just emotionally fragile enough to let its potential for religious experience take hold. Arcade Fire and Reggie Watts turn up onstage for the farewell, Donald Glover and Aziz Ansari are seen in the crowd living inside the moment, and one dude is so completely game that you can see a crutch waving in the air around the hour and seventeen mark.
This is the sort of unadulterated appeal we’re dealing with. This is what happens when an artist reconciles his internal, private core with the public image so many fall pray to. Lovelace and Southern grasp this unique dichotomy and continuously crosscut between spheres. Overheads of the stage being dismantled juxtapose with the mass of humanity jumping in the pit; the surreal insanity while performing an epic three-plus hour gig compares to the unreal feeling afterwards knowing that outlet is no longer available. Alternating from serene introspection to images dripping in sweat, tears, and unbridled energy, Shut Up and Play the Hits is the end for Murphy, LCD Soundsystem, and a legion of worshippers. For me, however, it’s a new beginning and the fact I’m getting on board so impossibly late proves how important the music and legend truly are.
I mean, I didn’t even realize “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” was there’s. My re-education continues.
James Murphy courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.