Feedback is ringing in everybody’s ears. A shell-shocked camera erratically moves about, capturing the blurred faces of individuals shambling off into the distance. They are in a stupor because a monumental event has happened…they just might have witnessed one of the greatest gigs of all time.
LCD Soundsystem had slowly but surely built up a large cult following by the time their creator James Murphy decided to pull the plug and announce that the band would end with a one off gig in Madison Square Gardens. What we witness is the concert itself, the preparations beforehand, and the day after as it dawns on Murphy what he has achieved and what he leaves behind. There have been many great concert films over the years, from The Last Waltz to Stop Making Sense, but what makes Shut Up and Play the Hits so interesting is it’s focus on the aftermath of such an event and of the lasting effect a performance can have.
The concert itself is a virtuoso four-hour show that plunges through the group’s back catalogue and includes special guest performances from the likes of Arcade Fire. Lovelace and Southern employed eleven different cinematographers to film the event, leading to a great deal of variety in styles as different tracks are shown, from the slow and sombre panning on ‘Someone Great’ to the energetic cutting and tight close-ups employed during ‘North American Scum’. For fans, a healthy dose of the film contains whole songs, though the voiceover discussion during ‘Losing My Edge’ that tries to explain its meaning seems redundant in a film that strives to not provide a biography of the group.
Indeed, whilst elements of Murphy’s background are discussed, they are served to humanise him rather than provide an accessible overview for those unfamiliar with the band. Through following Murphy as he recovers from the night before, walks his dog, shaves in the mirror, makes coffee, the mythic aura of the rock front man is demystified. During the concert the film cuts between performer and spectator and a divide is always there between the two. Murphy’s decision to end the band is motivated less from a fear of fame, than a fear of being removed from the very people that his music influences so deeply.
It is this self-consciousness that appears to dictate Murphy’s actions. He states that he realises his relatively old age for a popular musician (at the time 41) is a limiting factor in the bands longevity, and notes that whilst he is not afraid of failure, he recognises why that might be a factor in his decision to quit whilst he’s ahead. When we see the hangover of the night before, where Murphy is alone in his apartment conducting mundane tasks, it is impossible not to acknowledge that he is aware of the camera’s presence and that this is the side that he wants us to see of him. The only moment when he is caught off guard is upon visiting the band’s storage space and subsequently breaks down, suddenly aware that a major part of his life has come to a crashing halt.
His decision to end the band’s illustrious career with one last great performance is part of his desire as he says to, “Leave a mark, leave a stain.” What remains to be seen though is whether this decision to cap it off with the climatic performance in New York will go down as his greatest triumph or greatest failure. There’s no way of escaping that Shut Up and Play the Hits is a fan film and that those unfamiliar with the band will be left wondering what all the fuss is about, but as an analysis of Murphy the documentary is highly insightful. Standing outside a café, he and his manager sadly reflect that New York is constantly changing. The concert we witness is an attempt to leave a legacy behind, to freeze a moment in time when all else around him is changing. The film provides a fascinating insight into Murphy’s attempt to immortalise his work, and provide a visual memoir to the band he leaves behind.
The film is currently set to be released in the US in “special one-night only engagements” this summer, with the UK + rest of the world to follow soon after. Check the film’s website for more updates.