Billy Corgan is The Smashing Pumpkins. Judge Paul Pritchard is smiling politely.
"That's a nice song you wrote, Jimmy."
Smashing Pumpkins: If All Goes Wrong offers an insight into the birth of the fourth iteration of The Smashing Pumpkins (or is it the fifth?), as group leader Billy Corgan resurrects his once world-conquering band. Having lost original bass player D'arcy Wretzky prior to the release of the band's fifth album, Machina/The Machines of God, which suffered from poor sales, the Pumpkins finally called it a day. The band's exit from the music world was nothing but a whimper, far from befitting one of the greatest bands of the Nineties, if not all time.
Much like its breakup, the return of the Pumpkins was an oddly muted affair. When Billy Corgan assembled his latest recruits, with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin being the only other original band member to return, it was hard to spot the difference between The Smashing Pumpkins and Corgan's post-breakup band, Zwan. Without D'arcy and original guitarist James Iha, the question had to be asked: is this really the Pumpkins, and, if so, can they ever again reach the heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?
Documenting the band's residencies at the Orange Peel in Asheville and the Fillmore in San Francisco, If All Goes Wrong offers a fascinating look into both Billy Corgan's songwriting process and his attempts at fashioning a new version of his band, a band he apparently has no interest in returning to former glories with.
Adorned in his nightdress, Corgan is often seen holed up in his hotel room, deep in the songwriting process, crafting songs that are then knocked into shape with the band. While the sequences with the band are musically the most satisfying, it is the more intimate moments with Corgan that are of most interest. These sequences reveal Corgan's desire to move the band forward, while voicing his frustrations at the fans reluctance to see the band progress. Even more telling is his reaction to being asked why he won't play the Pumpkins' classic "Soma" anymore. After playing a short instrumental version of the track, Corgan goes on to talk about how he feels former Pumpkin James Iha's involvement in the song's creation overshadows his own input. Though only a few minutes long, the conversation shows that Corgan's "maniacal" control over the band remains as strong as ever, and casts the singer/songwriter in a less than flattering light, something this documentary isn't shy of doing. As a fan of the Pumpkins, I found Corgan's lack of enthusiasm regarding the band's back catalog and its former members pretty sad to see. His determination to move the band forward is laudable but, while songs like "The Rose March" hint at Corgan's resurgent genius, all too often the new material lacks the power or beauty of classic albums Siamese Dream and Adore. "Gossamer" in particular is indicative of the problems facing the current Pumpkins lineup. A 30-plus minute epic, "Gossamer" is a self-indulgent journey into Billy Corgan's ego. This rambling mess is more a test of endurance that sees fans walking out, leading Corgan to christen one show "three hours of quiet misery." While the band members themselves appear to acknowledge the disquiet in their audiences, they see "Gossamer" and its ilk as being vital to their creative development.
Visually the documentary is rather formulaic, with plenty of grainy black-and-white shots thrown in to give that raw feeling. Jack Gulick's direction is more successful in capturing both the gelling of these five individuals into a band, and the impact of the bands new direction on its fan base. Billy Corgan, who alone arguably makes up 90 percent of the band, is the main focus of Gulick's film. Although they only exist on the periphery of the film's focus, three new members—guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Ginger Reyes, and keyboard player Lisa Harriton—have their tales to tell. While Harrington, who prior to joining the band had little knowledge of rock music, had an interesting transition to make, it's Schroeder who has the most interesting moment. With the band receiving less than stellar reviews, fans being far from enthusiastic about the set lists, and Billy Corgan being, well, Billy Corgan, it all gets too much for Schroeder who, mid-set, smashes his guitar to the stage floor and storms off. Rock and roll, indeed. Less rock and roll than before, though, is Jimmy Chamberlin, who has progressed from top drummer to being the band's calming influence. Though his appearances are all too fleeting, Chamberlin seems able to best articulate what it is that the Pumpkins are trying to do.
Disc Two captures the band performing live during their Fillmore Residency. Newer songs, some only days old, are too sketchy and fail to connect with the audience, while a refusal to play any of the classics only serves to compound the situation. It's telling that "Untitled," released as a farewell when the band split in 2000, is the best song here. Following Corgan's solo performance to open the gig, things do pick up somewhat. The audience seems willing to give the new material a chance, while the new band members prove to be more than qualified, if perhaps lacking the presence of D'arcy, James, or even Melissa Auf der Maur. As the set continues, however, audience enthusiasm begins to wane before being killed stone dead by "Gossamer." Still, director Daniel E. Catullo does a good job of capturing the event, without relying on too much trickery.
Filmed in high definition, the combination of the clarity of the visuals and a booming 5.1 DTS soundtrack make for an excellent reproduction of the show. Tracks like "Heavy Metal Machine" benefit massively from the superb audio contained on the disc. Kicking off the extras is the "Voices of the Ghost Children" featurette. Nothing more than fans of the band discussing their connection to Corgan and Co., this short piece shows how important this band once was, even if its current stance doesn't sit so well. An interview with Pete Townshend (The Who) deals with the interesting battle between artistic growth and fan expectations. Finally, and best of all, are a collection of songs being rehearsed by the band. Seeing the band in this more relaxed setting was perhaps the highlight of this two-disc set for me personally. New song "Mama" is revealed to be a gem that shines as the band members allow themselves to loosen up.
As a band, it could be argued The Smashing Pumpkins is guilty of making art for art's sake. Its refusal to adhere to the rock-and-roll rulebook, and eschewal of a traditional tour in favor of these more personal shows is commendable. The flipside of this is the band's bloody mindedness when it comes to its back catalog. Would it really hurt to slip "1979," "Today," or "Zero" into the set list? Artistic struggles aside, If All Goes Wrong is indispensable for fans. Small moments, like Billy Corgan meeting fans or witnessing a new song slowly coming together, make this film a fascinating document of a band being reborn.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Coming Home Media
• "Voices Of The Ghost Children"
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