We can’t remember the last time a concert movie caused quite as much excitement as “Shut Up And Play The Hits.” But given that the film is a document of the final gig of James Murphy‘s LCD Soundsystem, one of the most acclaimed bands of the last decade, it’s easy to understand. Despite the dance-punk-glam-rock group reaching a point where they were more successful than ever before, Murphy decided to call it a day while still on top, breaking up the band after two sold-out gigs at Madison Square Garden last April.
And there to document it were British filmmakers Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern (“Blur: No Distance Left To Run“), who filmed not only the gig itself, but also the preparation and the aftermath, as Murphy begins to get ready for a life without his most famous alias. The film premiered at Sundance this week, and we managed to sit down not only with Lovelace & Southern, but also Murphy himself, to discuss the genesis of the film, whether the full concert will see the light of day (answer: yes), and what they plan on moving on to now that the film’s in the can.
Were there any initial titles before [Arcade Fire frontman] Win Butler shouted out “Shut Up and Play The Hits?”
WILL: We were trying to put it to the back of our minds.
DYLAN: I think we had things in there, but no one was buying them, so when we screened it, it was “All My Friends,” but it just…that was never a contender for the title. It was just a holding place. I think “What It’s Like to Make Things” was a title at one point. But that was a kind of slightly different incarnation of the movie. Then, when Butler said “shut up and play the hits” onstage it seemed to fit. You know it was a cool title anyway. It kind of sticks in your head, but it also kind of in a way speaks to James’ predicament as the central character. Being in a band, and what people expect of you, is one of the themes in the film, so it spoke to that, and also tied in to the concert element of the film.
How did this compare to your Blur project?
DYLAN: It was a very, very different kind of project. In that the Blur project is more of a traditional kind of biographical documentary, over a longer period of time. It spans twenty years of the band’s history, and when we approach these music films we’re always looking for what the story is beyond the music, and for us the Blur film was a story about a friendship. It’s how these guys came together as young men, did this incredible thing together that ultimately pushed them apart, and it was all about that kind of reconnecting. This one we were kind of attracted by the nature of James’ decision. It’s almost the opposite of Blur that having got the band in an incredible position where they’re at their most popular, where they’re still friends, they’re still making great music, they just decide to quit. It’s the opposite of the rock and roll cliché, it’s like there’s no falling out over drugs or plotting out and playing shitty tours and stuff. They went out on a high.
WILL: I guess it’s as unusual an ending as you could ever have.
DYLAN: It was fascinating to us, the idea of why you would do that and what it would feel like to do that. Sort of counter-intuitive? What’s it like the day after you stopped this thing, was it the right decision to make? What are the possible reasons for that, and it was always our intention rather then make a biography film, which we did with Blur, to make a film that came from a very particular position or a very particular moment in time. And I just dealt with that moment and all the things connected to it.
How early on did you determine that structure or was it something you found in the editing room?
WILL: We talked to James about making a film for about six months or so before the Madison Square Garden show. We had it in a few different incarnations, as we were trying to work out what to do, but we always knew that it was going to be a film exploring why quit, why stop, and when they decided to play Madison Square Garden, that was the point that it worked.
How many hours of footage did you guys shoot in total?
JAMES: 48 just in concert, it’s 13 cameras…
WILL: Like 100 hours I guess.
And you’ve been whittling it down to 100 minutes.
WILL: That’s a good ratio.
You come here and you watch a movie about the end of this portion of your career. Is anything surreal anymore or is it just kind of taking it in stride?
JAMES: Anything surreal? Is anything not surreal about being here? It’s a sea of weird looking sunglasses and gift bags and a movie about your band that everyone’s staring at. I don’t go to any music industry festival. Music festivals are just fans and bands, so I don’t know how it compares. This is a super weird thing, so it’s all surreal. So like the movie part, since I’ve been in a sound editing room seeing scenes, it wasn’t like I did the concert and said see you guys next year, so a lot of the surrealness was hammered home quickly.
WILL: We actually spent Christmas together making it sound good.
JAMES: Exactly. We were pulling Christmas crackers.
Are there any plans for a release of the full concert?
WILL: Definitely. This film stands on its own but the concert on its own is a big deal.
JAMES: This film isn’t the concert film. It’s a story, it’s like if it was a war movie it wouldn’t just be the battles. You’d have battle scenes and the camp, and the show is like the battle scenes but there’s a full concert that had to be separate, because it would be shitty to jam it into the movie. Who wants to watch a four hour movie of a concert plus the narrative part? But a fan would want to just see the concert, and I want to just for myself.
WILL: And we’re discussing how that exists.
You have this very frequent juxtaposition between the loud moments on stage and the quiet moments of your life. How early on did you decide to do that? That great moment where everybody’s clapping along to “Sound of Silver” and then abruptly you’re going into the office.
DYLAN: That was a big part of what type of film we wanted to make. It contrasted James in the band, and the final show, this huge show, and then what happens the day after you finish. And you’re probably on your own, as quiet a moment as you can get.
JAMES: It’s not a debauched rock and roll morning.
DYLAN: You and your dog.
WILL: I think that’s an important scene in the film, that kind of dissection of the perception that people have of musicians and bands. It was important to really have those bigger moments juxtaposed with those smaller moments. It’s part of what the story’s about.
Do you feel so far that calling it quits was the right call or is it always just kind of an open decision?
JAMES: I don’t think it’s the kind of call that can be without a certain type of sadness or regret. That’s part of the deal but I’ll stand behind it. If we didn’t, I couldn’t be here. And I wouldn’t be able to do much else, that was the problem. Now that you ask me right now, that was the problem. If you asked me later, it would be a different reason to quit.
Are you working on any other projects or soundtracks?
JAMES: Right now, no, but I might. This is the exciting thing is I don’t know.
Is there anything else you’re into non-musically that you can do now that you couldn’t do before?
JAMES: Yeah, this. This took a lot of time.
WILL: You get to retire, and then you get to work really hard.
DYLAN: We still have to do, I mean I still have a lot of mixing to do for the concert, like a lot to do. Production stuff and doing some fun non music stuff as well.
What do the other band members think of the film?
JAMES: They seem to like it. Nancy [Whang] saw it for the first time last night, she was really excited. Pat [Mahoney] said he was excited, but you know Pat. Gavin [Russom] loved it, Matt [Thornley] loved it, uh, Tyler [Pope] hasn’t seen it, Al [Doyle] hasn’t seen it, so don’t know yet.
Do you guys have any sort of leads yet on distribution?
WILL: That’s the plan but I don’t have any leads.
JAMES: We luckily don’t have to deal with that.
It’s out of your hands. What do you guys have next after this?
DYLAN: The concert. Once that’s done. I think the next project is going to be a move away from music films and we’re trying to look at scripts, developing our own ideas, and bring something else to Sundance.
— Interview by William Goss