First, let me get something straight. I like LCD Soundsystem. No, I’m sorry. I misspoke; I really, REALLY, like LCD Soundsystem. Since the 2002 release of frontman James Murphy’s blisteringly tongue-in-cheek debut single Losing My Edge, right throught to last year’s long-player This Is Happening, by way of their eponymous debut album and 2007′s Sound of Silver, the genre-busting house/funk/rock/soul output of the international NYC-based collective have soundtracked mine and many others’ decade. Fact is, they’re just too blimmin’ likeable.
James Murphy, all self-effacing and demonstrative, is a rock ‘n’ roll teddy bear, and has continuously done all he can to avoid the limelight, but found fame at the ripe old age of 32. Brit guitarist Al Doyle (also a member of Hot Chip) is all infectious head-bop and spiked-hair energy. Resident ivory-tickler Nancy Whang, well, Nancy is just cute as a button. The whole bally lot of them are pretty much The Nicest Guys In Pop. So nice, in fact, that British filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (whose previous effort was Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run) decided to chart the demise of the band, via a three and three quarter hours, sold out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden; a film which became Shut Up and Play the Hits that, to a fan like me, is something akin to a religious experience.
See, most bands tend to split up acrimoniously, or fizzle out due to poor music or a decline in interest. LCD Soundsystem, on the other hand, did something different, something unprecedented. They decided to go out with a bang, announcing that the gig would be their last, stating, “If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.”
Post-announcement, the band released a ‘live-in-studio’ album, London Sessions, and a war began between Murphy and prospective ticket-touts, who bought up huge amounts in order to sell on for a profit, which enraged the lead singer as genuine fans were initially missing out. Nevertheless, the concert was a massive success, proven by the atmosphere Southern and Lovelace captured on the night. That is certainly not in question. The crowd move as one. The band soak up each and every second of their legendary performance. The stage is modestly dressed, stark, even. (There is however an unexpected appearance of a huge mirrorball, an object synonymous with both the band’s music and it’s ethos.) The setlist is extensive without being indulgent. In short, it’s a peach of a gig.
But what Southern and Lovelace have achieved with Shut Up and Play the Hits is not just a keen representation of what was clearly an unforgettable evening, but an insight into the inspiration for the show and the implications for Murphy and the rest of his bandmates.
Opening the morning after their last ever gig, Murphy still dressed in the tuxedo dress shirt he performed in, the film follows him on the first day of his ‘retirement’, as he makes coffee, walks his dog, visits his manager and the storage facility in which all his gear and instruments have been placed (where he begins to break down, perhaps fully realising the impact of the previous evening). Interspersed with uniquely filmed footage of the concert itself, the remaining aspect of the film is an extended interview with The New York Times Magazine columnist Chuck Klosterman, in which Klosterman pushes Murphy to name the biggest failure he hypothesises all celebrities can be defined by. Murphy answers, dejectedly, “I’m afraid that it’ll be stopping.” For it is the fear of failure and the avoidance of failure by simply quitting that forms the backbone of the documentary. “When you start a band, do you imagine how it will end?”, Klosterman asks of Murphy. Even Murphy, it seems, cannot answer this question.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have hope. Southern and Lovelace’s movie is a joyful affair. Punctuated by the energetic live performances, (which the filmmakers intelligently chose to play in their entirety, rather than the usual snippets you get in this sort of concert movie), the forty-eight hour period before, during and after the spectacular ending of one of the twenty-first century’s greatest live acts exposes the true desires of Murphy and his inspirations and influences. Murphy doesn’t know what he wants to do next, but he knows he wants to do something; he’ll still be working with his manager, he’ll still be going to his favourite restaurants. However, it is hope that will drive Murphy now; primarily the hope that he has made the right decision, that he got out at the right time. This sentiment is shared by every person in the audience when Murphy, in arguably LCD Soundsystem’s most popular song, All My Friends, sings, “To tell the truth/This could be the last time”. This time, it really is.
But beyond the celebrity guests, (Reggie Watts and Win Butler both guest on a song each; the latter’s ironic heckle providing the title for the film), the enormity of the event, and the importance of the band, Shut Up and Play the Hits is a powerful, moving even, portrayal of a man who quit while he was ahead, and just wanted to put on one hell of a show. Now, what’s more likeable than that?