2005 / Movie Reviews / Music

Review: Flaming Lips Documentary Chronicles ‘Freaks’ Perseverance

Movie Follows Oklahoma Psychedelic Rockers Through 20-Year Career

The story of the Flaming Lips is one of rock ‘n roll’s weirdest, and one of its most unlikely.

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Frankly, the Oklahoma-reared band’s aesthetic and creative decisions over the years have thoroughly earned their reputation as a gang of musical weirdoes. But let’s put aside their 20-plus years of producing brain-fried, surrealistic rock. Forget about the their long in-development feature-length Christmas film set on Mars. Dismiss the spectacle of confetti, fake blood and dancers dressed in animal costumes that is the core of their live show (even their latest gag of having head Lip Wayne Coyne sail across the audience inside an inflated bubble).

Rather, the Lips are really weird because they’ve survived three decades on pop music’s outer limits and blossomed to create their greatest work when most of their 40-something contemporaries have given up or are artistically repeating themselves.

A new documentary, “The Fearless Freaks,” tells this unlikely tale of artistic daring and perseverance, following the group’s zig-zaging ascent from psychedelic oddballs of the early ’80s hardcore punk scene to MTV-knighted, one-hit wonders in the ’90s grunge era to today’s ranking as one of underground rock’s premier bands. The movie, which played at a handful of film festivals around the U.S. this spring, was released on DVD last week.

“It’s like weird rock ‘n’ roll,” Coyne bashfully tells neighbors as he’s being filmed visiting his old haunts in Oklahoma City. “When we were young, we took too many drugs so we like to make weird music.”

This cop-out, which Coyne has frequently used in interviews, couldn’t be further from the truth. While the band has always relied on acid-imagery and cartoonish surrealism, the band’s music isn’t the end result of letting a bunch of stoned-out hippies go wild in the studio. As “The Fearless Freaks” makes plain, the Flaming Lips are the product of purpose.

The movie, directed by band confidante Bradley Beesley, closely follows the man who defines that purpose — Coyne. Ever industrious, Coyne is the engine that has kept the Lips if not exactly on track at least functioning through the years. Beesley tells Coyne’s story (and to a lesser extent his two bandmates, bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) through a collection of family photos and snippets from music videos, concert footage and grainy, Super 8 home movies that are interspersed with current interviews with the Lips and their circle of supporters.

Some of the most entertaining footage is watching Coyne hanging with family members and revisit his old stomping grounds. (The film’s most hilarious sequence is when Coyne tries to recreate a robbery at the Long John Silver’s that he used to work at during the band’s fallow period. Although the building now houses a Vietnamese restaurant, Coyne directs two eager children — recruited to play a cashier and fry cook — to hit the ground as Coyne plays one of the expletive-spewing thieves.)

While there’s an undeniable “Behind The Music” arc to this documentary (more on this later), “Freaks” is surprisingly honest for a band-produced movie (the Lips’ manager is an associate producer). Coyne freely discusses his and Ivins’ lack of musical skill, the band’s un-punk-like attempts to spark major label interest in the Lips by calling them on the phone, and even the substance abuse problems plaguing both Coyne’s and Drozd’s brothers. Coyne admits how much of the Lips’ early act was borrowed from contemporaries, the Butthole Surfers. (Oddly, not a peep is made about the accusations that the band plagiarized music, notably from Cat Stevens and conductor Michel Kamen.)

The most explicit parts of “Freaks” are those documenting Drozd’s longtime heroin addiction. In one disturbing and fascinating sequence is when a skittish, drawn Drozd appears near bottom with the drug and allows Beesley to film him preparing to shoot up and then the fix’s after effects. This scene, combined with the heartbreaking interviews with Drozd’s long-suffering bandmates and loved ones and prevalent footage of his awe-inspiring musical talents, is where the “Behind The Music” arc reaches its crescendo. When Drozd finally cleans up, you can’t help but cheer him on.

Besides the drama, Beesley deftly zeroes in on the causes of the Lips’ latter-day success: Coyne’s creative drive and the musical partnership that has developed between visionary Coyne and uber musician Drozd. That collaboration not only birthed the group’s last two magnificent albums, “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” but validated the band’s continuing existence.

The film does have its weaknesses. The movie is completely subsumed in the Lips’ visual aesthetic (psychedelic visual effects, cartoon posters, solarized photos, plastic insects, etc.), and often those being interviewed have to compete with the artwork or antics in the background (One hilarious sequences has someone walking around in the background in a pink rabbit costume while Coyne’s nephew is interviewed.) Mostly, however, the prevalence of the Lips’ style leaves Beesley with little space to leave a unique imprint of his own.

A far more pressing problem is the confusing, almost circular storyline. Facts, points or questions are raised early on and only answered much later. For fans, discussing the group’s history out-of-sequence isn’t a problem, but this could be confusing to the Lips neophyte.

There’s also surprisingly few comments from the Lips’ numerous ex-bandmates (the notable exception being Mercury Rev mastermind Jonathan Donahue). There’s few voices coming from those sour on the Lips experience. Nor do we hear from Beck, who hired the group as a backup band during a fall tour in 2002, but then became the target of much press sniping by Coyne.

Writer Irwin Chusid points out in his book on outsider pop music, “Songs In The Key Of Z,” rock has always had its share of casualties, but especially among the visionaries of the ’60s psychedelic era. He lists musicians of promise like Love’s Arthur Lee, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, The 13th Floor Elevators’ Roky Erickson, and Moby Grape’s Skip Spence, who retreated from the spotlight either because of drugs or mental illness or just public indifference. Their achievements are now the diamonds valued only by rock connoisseurs.

“The Fearless Freaks” explains why the Lips are unique, having defied both expectation and precedent and earned a spot in popular consciousness.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2005 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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