Alibi V.24 No.32 • Aug 6-12, 2015 

I Like to Watch

Flaming Hot Lips

A film full of heady nugs

One version of the Flaming Lips
One version of the Flaming Lips
Courtesy of the Artist

Watching rockumentaries should be an intrinsic part of anyone’s modern musical experience. Nearly every band has produced visual work reflective of their past and present. And likely, there’s a film for every flava and taste in the rocanrol spectrum. Making sense of the details is time well spent. Here’s what I know so far.

Sometimes they’re just obligatory nods to a record label trying to sustain momentum (see The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour). Other times filmic representations of a band serve as a means to develop a mythos (Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii or Zep’s The Song Remains the Same) used to propel the band, godlike, into the unknown, but highly susceptible future.

Once in a while, rockumentaries work magic, giving depth to the forces that spawned them. Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz are opportunities to watch musicians and their associated cultures decline precipitously or ascend majestically as America swirls through the lens, into the viewer’s mind.

When such efforts combine the strategies outlined above with unkempt honesty about the lives behind the concert extravaganzas—the messy roots that drew a group of string plucking, drum smashing, creative humans together—you’ve got a decent rockumentary. When the director binds those conflicts together with a story about the results of those interactions and reactions, it’s cinematic treasure.

Such is the case with The Fearless Freaks, a film by Bradley Beesley about The Flaming Lips. To experience this film, now 10 years past completion, you’ll have to lay out some feria. It’s on Netflix, but you can’t stream it; you’ll have to rent it. You can also purchase the film at Amazon or through the band’s website.

It’s worth it just to witness an American rocanrol band in all its glory and shame. After viewing you’ll either wanna start downloading the Oklahoma City ensemble’s vast oeuvre or just say, “Fuck it, those dudes are way too weird for me.” Either way, it’s a polarizing experience that will add heaps of fun or foreboding to your aural life.

Until the band established itself in our nation’s punk pantheon, front man Wayne Coyne continued to do his thing as a fry cook at Long John Silver’s. The recollections of his experiences among America’s working poor serve as both cautionary tale and a series of small triumphs that any local, working musician can take with them as they proceed on the road to faraway stardom. Coyne came away from such experiences with an undeniable charisma and elegance, which makes for compelling irony in the film.

The interviews featuring Lips’ multi-instrumentalist and chief composer Steven Drozd lend a sense of historical presence to the proceedings. The shocking honesty of Drozd’s testimonial about his life in music, including a lengthy and uncomfortably sad-beautiful sequence where the musician shoots up, provide a heart-rending vision of what the life of an artist often entails.

Drozd comes from a long line of musicians ensconced in the tradition of remembering, expressing and blending the folk music of European immigrants into the melting pot of our shared musical heritage. His transition from young traditionalist to troubled arbiter of postmodern rock aesthetics is a knowing nod to the price paid for admission to the 21st century.

Beesley, a longtime friend and cohort of The Flaming Lips extended family, sometimes verges on hagiography as he tells his tale of a rock band wondrously lost and found mid-continent. But contrarian commentary—particularly that of Butthole Surfers main man Gibby Haynes—provides a balance that adds to the gravitas of his narrative.

The Fearless Freaks is a timeless spectacle summarizing the American experience through musical redemption. In the film and in rock, that’s something available to all outsiders—really all Americans—willing to put aside affectation and fly their freak flag fearlessly.