LCD Soundsystem is over, but James Murphy lives on. That’s main takeaway of “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the energetic portrait of the group’s big finish last year and a popular entry in Sundance’s midnight selection this year. More than just a concert movie, “Shut Up and Play the Hits” explores the 41-year-old Murphy’s decision to walk away from being the frontman for a vastly successful dance rock band at the height of its popularity.
Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern combine footage of the spectacular final show, which took place at Madison Square Garden last April in front of thousands of rabid fans (including this writer), with footage shot the day after that captures Murphy’s quiet, pensive experience the next day. Those into the band will obviously delight in the final show’s lavish production values, but others may find Murphy’s solemn morning-after experience far more interesting for the way it captures his attempt to grapple with the aging process as a constant work in progress. (In an interview with music journalist Chuck Klosterman that runs throughout the movie, Murphy says he wants the band to “leave a stain.”)
The singer-songwriter, also a producer of the film and an actor in the Sundance premiere “The Comedy,” sat down with Indiewire to elaborate on his decision to participate in the movie and what he might do next. The film’s directors also weighed in.
Thousands of people attended the final show at MSG. They will be looking to find themselves in this footage. I know I did.
JAMES MURPHY: Well, you know, when it comes to Blu-ray, they can analyze it.
Who’s the teary-eyed guy you keep finding in the crowd?
DYLAN SOUTHERN: Someone on YouTube said they went to high school with him.
The movie really taps into the spectacle of the MSG show, but you also played four additional finale concerts earlier that week at Terminal 5. James, how did that relatively smaller space compare to the last show?
JM: It’s weird to think of Terminal 5 as a small space. It’s bigger than any venue where I saw a show before being in LCD Soundsystem.
Then MSG must have really blown your mind.
JM: Well, no, we’ve gone on to play festivals and things like that. But as a kid, the biggest show I saw was at Webster Hall.
It’s a strange meta experience to watch the concert through the lens of multiple cameras after viewing it from a fixed position. What was it like for you to relive it as a member of the audience?
JM: For starters, there was never a process of cutting down the show. There’s a show that exists; that’ll be released at some point. It was more like finding what songs worked to tell the story at the right times. They weren’t necessarily the hits; they were just the right songs to move through the narrative. I’ve been involved in that from the beginning, because I did all the sound mixing. It’s been a fun collaboration.
WILL LOVELACE: On paper, we had a list of which songs we’d like to use to tell a story.
JM: The last one we cut was “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House.”
WL: It didn’t quite fit.
In the movie, you tell Chuck Klosterman during an interview that you get sick of questions about whether or not Daft Punk actually played at your house.
JM: That’s not one of your questions, right?
Hardly. But I wonder if you get sick of playing the same songs in the way you get sick of the same questions.
JM: Well, the questions are stupid; the songs aren’t. Because that’s a dumb question, right? You would never ask that question. But there are songs that I get sick of.
Does it feel like a new experience to watch yourself onstage?
JM: Oh my god, yeah. Don’t forget: I don’t see myself ever on stage, by the definition of eyeballs. I have no idea. And I have my eyes closed for most of the show anyway, which is just how I deal with stage fright. So it’s a very wild and crazy experience to watch it. Luckily, because we’ve been a band long enough that there have been enough musical festivals in Europe where they send you the DVD and you watch the live mix, which sounds terrible, and you have to approve it before it airs on Belgian television or whatever. So I’ve seen myself a bit. It was actually really nice to be able to see it and when I’m really uncomfortable about it, I can say something, like “not this [footage].” We had a long conversation beforehand. It wasn’t about getting rid of the bad shots of us. It was more like getting rid of the embarrassing rock star shots that looked too planned.
WL: The whole show was approached with pre-discussed details. We weren’t into the way people shoot shows. We weren’t talking about A camera, B camera, C camera…
Did you plan anything during the show knowing that it would wind up in the documentary?
JM: No, no. The really exciting part was that just putting the show on was so daunting that even though we talked so much before the show, when it came time for showtime, it took so much energy for us to do the four Terminal 5 shows and then put on this shitty high school rock opera, that I wouldn’t even have had the brainpower to adjust to thinking about cameras. We just had the rule that the cameras couldn’t be between two band members. That was all that really mattered.
DL: These weren’t rock camera operators. These were DPs who don’t shoot shows all the time, so it was really their experience of the show. Other directors might have backroom monitors and give commands.
JM: “Get on the piano!”
DL: I was operating a camera myself. It was kind of exciting to do it in that way. If we could’ve afforded it, we would’ve shot with 13 cameras for four hours on film.
WL: The people who we got were smart enough to find characters worth shooting.
DL: So that it could be as true to the show as possible. It’s occasionally kind of dirty.
There’s a whole other dimension to the movie that comes from the day after footage. Some of it is pretty candid stuff, like James crying as he stands in a room with his old equipment. You’re usually not that forthcoming onstage. What made you comfortable enough to show that side on camera?
JM: When I do a good music interview with someone like Chuck, I’m as open as possible. Sometimes people think I’m kidding, but in fact I’m trying to be as open as possible. When I’m joking, people think I’m serious. But it’s in the movie that I want to communicate. If these guys had just come and said, “We want to be in the room,” it would’ve been a different story. But this film had gone through so many different plans and ideas so that by the time it came down to March or April, I was already so invested in it that I didn’t feel like there were these people who were going to intrude on my life. I felt like we were making a thing. I had my role to do in that thing and they had their role. I didn’t feel like something terrible would happen and it would appear on the internet. I knew that we were making a narrative.
WL: For us, we were always telling a story. It’s a narrative film. There’s an aspect to it that’s a concert film, but those songs serve the story.
JM: I like my battle analogy.
WL: Yeah, that one’s good.
JM: In a war film, there are battle scenes and then there’s the story. If this is a war movie, the songs are the battle scenes. But it’s not a documentary in the sense that it’s not the history of the band. There’s no going back in time. For us, it’s a movie, and it almost doesn’t matter that it’s a real band. We wanted it just to be about this moment in time. The narrative structure did that. It would be weird to have no performance and weird to have talking heads as well.
When do you expect to release the full concert footage?
JM: We’re talking about it. We want to do something that’s exciting and experiential.
You were listed as the guest for a party at Sundance, which led some people to speculate that LCD Soundsystem might actually play a reunion show. That will never, ever happen, right?
JM: Yeah. I mean, I’m going to play records at that party. I’m a middle-aged guy with records. It’s something I constantly do. It’s my job.
You’re showing a lot of creative range these days: You were singing, you DJ, you’re a film producer and have written movie soundtracks. You collaborate with performance artists like Reggie Watts. You have a role in a narrative feature playing at Sundance called “The Comedy.” Would you consider yourself a mixed-media artist rather than just a musician?
JM: The way the film was approached was a lot in the same way. Rather than saying, “Let’s make a documentary or a concert film,” it was like, “What’s the best thing for me right now?” I’ll do something that sounds interesting to me, so if somebody wants me to write a column for a magazine, I would do it if it seems interesting. Or a radio show. So talking about the movie, people asking if it’s a concert film or a documentary, I’m like, “It’s kind of neither. It’s a story-driven movie about deciding not to do something anymore.”
So that’s why you didn’t include anything about the ticketing issue with the MSG show that led you to book the additional performances at Terminal 5.
JM: That would be full-on documentary.
WL: There was some mention of it that got cut, wasn’t there?
There is one brief moment where you look at the MSG sales and say, “Everybody’s going to be there.”
JM: That was a joke.
Do you think you managed to satisfy your fans by adding those shows?
JM: I did the right thing for myself. Other people might feel robbed that we stopped playing, or feel like we’re assholes for playing MSG. But I did the best thing I could. If I was a kid, I feel like I would’ve been like, “That was cool.”
What kind of release do you want the movie to have?
DL: We want people to see it in theaters.
JM: The detail in those crowd shots is just so good to see, because we watched it in an editing suite before, so we couldn’t see the details on the small screen.
WL: It really is a communal experience and we’d like as many people to see that way as possible.