At a pivotal moment in "Shut Up and Play the Hits," James Murphy cries. For committed fans of LCD Soundsystem, the paradigm-shifting dance-rock group that abruptly ended its decade-long rise with the 2011 Madison Square Garden show captured in the documentary, Murphy's tears are a collective enterprise. He sobs for all of us.
If you've never heard of LCD Soundsystem or cared much for the group's work, "Shut Up and Play the Hits" still manages to explore the prospects of fame and contemporary rock music's lasting relevance. For those familiar with the thick blend of electronic rhythms, funky keyboards, dirty guitars and lead singer James Murphy's ability to croon and holler into the microphone in equal measures — often over the course of frantic and hugely infectious tracks — directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern provide a terrific showcase of the band's appeal and the rabid fandom that supported them.
On the surface, "Shut Up and Play the Hits" is a well-shot concert film that contains highlights from the MSG show in extraordinary detail, shifting from close-ups of the stage antics to expressionistic wide shots of the massive crowd (largely dressed in black and white in accordance with the band's request ahead of the show) and small backstage asides. But the filmmakers frequently cut to Murphy's mundane experiences as he awakes in his humble Brooklyn abode and contemplates his next steps. In a final structural twist, an interview with Murphy conducted by music journalist Chuck Klosterman runs over the soundtrack to give Murphy a systematic way of processing his decision to end the band in its prime.
With his fashionably unkempt beard a mixture of grey and white and his eyes weighted with fatigue even during his most heated performances, Murphy's screen presence resembles the kind of mopey loners that have become Jeff Bridges' sweet spot. In Murphy's case, his somber gaze and introspective narration stem from a place of utter authenticity. At 41, Murphy gained success relatively late in his music career, putting him in the unique position of contemplating a deeper set of values than fame often allows. There's a lovably comic poignancy to Murphy's scenes in his apartment, where he indulges his love of coffeemaking and takes care of his pug. In the wake of his massive send-off, he may as well have retreated to the countryside.
While these interstitial bits flesh out Murphy's persona and deepen the movie's themes, the MSG material dominates. An intentionally overblown mishmash of production values and musical finesse, the final LCD Soundsystem show included high-profile guests like Reggie Watts and Arcade Fire in addition to a dozen young men draped in togas to provide a chorus of backup vocals. The resulting spectacle hit the crowd (including a couple of celebrity fans, such as a crowd-surfing Aziz Ansari) with the impact of a cultural tsunami. It was the ultimate realization of the band's ability to meld its danceable rhythms to lyrical introspection. An evolutionary step forward stemming from the disco days, LCD Soundsystem made it acceptable for shy music geeks to rock out, and for the MSG show they showed up in full force.
That means anyone who attended the show or wish they could have will certainly delight in every small moment of "Shut Up and Play the Hits," nodding their heads in agreement when Klosterman singles out "Losin' My Edge" for its contribution to music history and feeling weepy when Murphy bids adieu to his trusty equipment. They will appreciate the groovy onstage rendition of the band's extended performance of "45:33," which was originally commissioned by Nike but never included in shows, and the informal closing sequence, in which a final performance of "New York I Love You" builds to a raw climax appropriately set to metropolitan imagery.
Others may watch these segments nonplussed, but can still latch onto the broader portrait of a man coming to grips with the next stage of his life and preparing to fade from the limelight. Taking cues from the mania of the MSG crowd, the movie presents Murphy in near-hagiographic terms: as a benevolent deity preparing for mortality. Of course, fans would have it no other way. For them, "Shut Up and Play the Hits" is like a wake that keeps the door open for Murphy's next life.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Oscilloscope Laboratories will release "Shut Up and Play the Hits" tomorrow for one night only in several AMC Theaters around the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Washington D.C. (Indiewire will provide more details of where you can see the film tomorrow.) The special nature of the screenings should help them fill up, but the movie's real business will come from its digital release.