Judge Russell Engebretson got a headache and accidentally wrote this review.
"They were not normal guys from normal families—you're talking about freaks."—Michelle Vlasimsky (Flaming Lips Manager, 1986-1990)
"We're just normal guys trying to make interesting music."
Wayne Coyne grew up in an economically blighted working class neighborhood in Oklahoma City, and he nurtured the dream—common to many kids before and since—of rock and roll stardom. The film depicts how The Flaming Lips was formed thanks to Coyne's relentless ambition, and how it evolved (in a decades long journey) from clumsy grunge thrasher band to Grammy award winner.
Facts of the Case
The Flaming Lips: The Fearless Freaks covers a lot of history, not exclusively of the band, but also of the large Coyne family. The Coyne's owned an 8mm camera that was used extensively, judging from the sampling of home movie footage interspersed throughout the documentary. There are many reels of Wayne and his friends from their early teens, and numerous shots of places where they lived and worked. Wayne Coyne was the head fry cook at a Long John Silver's off and on for about 11 years, from 1977 until the late '80s, and some of the footage was shot by Wayne in the restaurant. In one of the film's funnier sequences, he revisits his old workplace—now a family-owned Vietnamese noodle bar—and reenacts an armed robbery that took place when he was the manager, using the owner's young son and daughter as actors while he wildly narrates events. A less humorous scene revolves around a talk with his brother Tommy.
Tommy was convicted of grand theft auto (after two drug-related felonies) and served an 11-year prison term thanks to the three-strikes law. In one scene, Wayne talks to his brother in the old Northwest OKC neighborhood where Tommy now lives. They seem to be on friendly terms, but Wayne pointedly addresses the camera, saying that he is "not involved in any of it" (the drug scene), while his brother freely admits that he is "involved in some of it…to a point." Tommy says, laughing, "Wayne makes great efforts to stay away from my part of the world. Wayne went to Hollywood and did concerts; I went to jail. We went our separate ways…"
Later, Wayne visits his brother Kenny, and they talk about the formation of the Fearless Freaks in 1972—a bunch of young teens, organized by the Coyne brothers, who got high and played violent games of sandlot football (according to Tommy, "a semi-civilized gang fight"). Wayne's mother Dolly says, "it's a wonder more bones weren't broken," which prompts one to wonder how many bones were broken. Wayne Coyne says it's easy to see how the Fearless Freaks—a "team of druggies, musicians, and dropouts"—tied into the idea of being a band, and eventually transformed into The Flaming Lips.
The documentary chronicles the mutation of The Fearless Freaks into The Flaming Lips with candid personal histories of the current (and sometimes former) band members. A vivid portrait emerges of the musicians as lower-middle class kids achieving their rock and roll dreams against seemingly insurmountable odds, which they sometimes approached in an almost lackadaisical manner, and at other times with ferocious determination.
Bradley Beesley, the director of the film, is a childhood friend of Wayne Coyne, so his biographical portrait of the band members is intimate and perhaps biased; but he manages to get a lot of footage—in the form of personal revelations and very frank interviews—that another director would never have obtained. One good example of the director's deep access to the band members is the black-and-white footage of Stephen Drozd as he prepares to shoot up heroin, explaining in a matter-of-fact way that it's very hard to find useable veins anymore. The background view of his living room shows that most of his belongings have been sold or pawned, and he calmly explains that his girlfriend of many years finally gave up on him and left. It's difficult to imagine a hired director being allowed to film such a raw, forthright portrait of Stephen's addiction.
Near the start of the film, Wayne strolls around the downtown OKC neighborhood where he and his wife still live. He stops to talk to a couple of guys loitering near an intersection and explains to them that the cameraman following him around is there to film a documentary. He asks if they have ever heard of The Flaming Lips. They shake their heads and shrug. Wayne just smiles, tells them he's a member of the band, and waves them a cheery goodbye as he ambles on down the block. As the preceding scene illustrates, Wayne Coyne is a laid-back, likeable fellow. He makes modest, self-effacing statements, such as, "the early band was amateur but loud…good equipment but no talent." He knows that he is the organizer and showman, but freely admits the musical talent comes from other band members, in particular, drummer and all-around musical savant Steve Drozd, whose contribution to the band's sound is still very much in evidence. Another talented band member was Ronald Jones, whose departure was a great loss for the band; guitarist from 1992-1996, he was probably the most musically talented member of the band, next to Drozd. There are some interesting observations from Coyne (on the audio commentary) about why Jones split so abruptly from the group, just as they were gaining a greater degree of recognition. The band managed to survive the loss of Jones, though there was some trepidation in the beginning about the future direction of their music.
The Flaming Lips were initially influenced by the early punk/thrash bands, but they were also devoted fans of The Who. The bass player does a pretty decent imitation of the late, great John Entwistle, The Who's bassist and master of on-stage stoicism. A band member half-jokingly refers to their early musical performance as a kind of demented hillbilly version of The Who. In the early to mid 1980s, The Flaming Lips blatantly ripped off the musical style of The Butthole Surfers, with whom they frequently toured. Gibby Haynes, lead Surfer, says, "Hmm…How would I describe a Flaming Lips show to someone who had never seen them? Well, I'd first ask them if they'd ever seen a Butthole Surfers show." (Later, he laughingly adds, "They never sold out—like the Butthole Surfers.") The early shows featured sundry gimmicks: At one show, a motorcyle was set up on the stage and revved almost to the point of blowing the engine. Fortunately, the carbon monoxide and clouds of oily smoke did not asphyxiate any audience members. At another show, the cymbals were doused with lighter fluid, set on fire, and struck repeatedly with a drumstick. Even though a tower of stage lights crashed into the midst of the players during the number, the only casualty was a minor one: The drummer's hair was ignited by a stray flame but was quickly extinguished. It was one of those literally fiery concerts in 1990 that caught the attention of an A&R rep from Warner Brothers, which led to The Lips' first record contract. The film ably demonstrates that it has been a long, strange trip indeed for Wayne Coyne and company.
The DVD video is a mixed bag due to the varied film footage, consisting of scratchy home movies, vintage 1980s concert shots, and footage filmed as late as 2002. Workmanlike editing has managed, for the most part, to integrate the different elements into a smoothly flowing whole, and the picture quality is perfectly acceptable for this type of movie. The DVD audio is a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack that delivers the dialogue clearly and with no obvious distortion.
The extras include an extensive collection of slides, outtakes, commentary, live clips, and deleted scenes. The most entertaining extra is the audio commentary with the band and director, which contains a wealth of information. The profusion of participants and events—which are not presented in strict chronological order—can quickly overwhelm the uninitiated. The lively and often amusing commentary goes a long way towards clearing up some of the questions left unanswered throughout the film, and helps to place events in proper order.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The lack of music videos or decently recorded concert footage is puzzling and frustrating, especially considering that a second bonus DVD is included. Also, all of the bonus material would have fit on the first disc, which makes the second disc superfluous. The live band performances are interesting historically as a document of The Lips early, very noisy thrash shows, but the sound is so bad that listening to the sets is an exercise in aural agony. A music video or two, and some recent, decently recorded live concert material should have been included.
Down the years, The Flaming Lips have managed to forge a sound that borrows from many styles yet remains uniquely their own. It's an odd brew of whimsical pschyedelia and melodic thrash delivered with such sweet earnestness that only the dourest listener could fail to be charmed.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that I'm not a disinterested reviewer—the film has a nostalgic appeal for me. In the mid '70s, my wife and I were tenants in a succession of old duplexes (and sometimes 1930s era houses converted into apartment spaces) in the general area where the Coyne family lived. One duplex we rented was on Gatewood, the same street where Wayne Coyne and his family resided when the film was shot. Because of the film's space and time connection to my old stomping grounds, the documentary resonates with me in an intimate way that will not be the case for most viewers. Nonetheless, fans of The Lips should find this to be an entertainingly revealing and honest film; and the frank approach to capturing this slice of rock history may also appeal to casual viewers who enjoy film documentaries in general—even those not familiar with the band.
Freakily enough, the court finds The Lips not guilty.
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