It’s sort of hard to sympathize with one of the world’s most handsome actors, who regularly moonlights as a Goth prince rock star, even when his spiteful record label decides to sue him and his band for the whopping sum of $30 million. This is the fate that befell Jared Leto and his shockingly popular pop rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, as they were about to begin work on their third album, This Is War. “Artifact,” which recently won the BlackBerry People’s Choice Documentary Award at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and was directed by Leto under a Seussian pseudonym, is something of an accomplishment, not just because of its surprisingly sturdy filmmaking but also because it turns Leto into, if not a likable center for a documentary, then at least a compelling guide through the current state of the music industry, in all its wretched decay.
“Artifact” started off as a standard issue behind-the-scenes documentary of the band’s album but it became infinitely more interesting when, on the eve of recording with veteran producer Flood (responsible for some of the most beloved albums in recent memory, including Nine Inch Nails‘ The Downward Spiral and The Smashing Pumpkins‘ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), they were sued by their record label, EMI, for $30 million, mostly for wanting a fairer new contract and more control.
What follows is an occasionally agonizing, occasionally thrilling documentary in which the entire fucked-up state of the record industry is condensed into the story of one band and their own struggles. With helpful, “Inside Job“-esque graphics, Leto breaks down the ways that bands, even colossally successful ones like 30 Seconds to Mars (that have huge international audiences), can come out of a lengthy, successful tour owing their record label (literally) millions of dollars. (Or worse.)
Leto interviews various principles involved in the legal wrangling, including those from within the record label that dealt with the lawsuit. What’s telling is that all of them have since been fired due to a corporate buyout that then begat, in the human centipede that is the music industry, another costly buyout. They admit that their practices were shady and that the band was mostly trying to do something that was fair, but that unscrupulousness and greed kept them from acknowledging it at the time. He also interviews various other luminaries from the music scene, including other musicians (from bands like Linkin Park, System of a Down, and OK Go), various music journalists and (just for good measure) neuro-physicist Daniel Levitin, author of a book called “This Is Your Brain On Music,” who claims that human beings’ two most primal needs are sex and music.
Occasionally Leto throws in smatterings of biographical detail, which is important since his brother Shannon plays drums in the band (Tomo Milicevic is the third member and plays lead guitar) and it only sort of comes across as hopelessly self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as it actually is. Maybe it’s because Leto and has bandmates (and Flood) are so affably goofy – they rarely bicker and are never seen drinking excessively, doing drugs, throwing furniture out of hotel room windows, or generally taking part in the behavior rock stars are most known for. Leto, for his part, is almost supernaturally sincere, placing an utmost importance in the quality of the new album and his righteous indignation at the state of the industry. Also: he has really dreamy eyes and wears old timey pajamas like you’d see on Dick Van Dyke and has some great one liners, like when he threatens to shelve the record altogether and, “‘Chinese Democracy‘ this motherfucker.”
As the movie wears along, it becomes structured around the days since the lawsuit was filed, with title cards that read “x days since lawsuit,” which makes it feel a little bit like the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer.” The general sensation of a romantic comedy continues, with lots of bitter, passionate phone calls and existential walks along the beach (Leto draws giant figures in the sand, like Tyler Durden in the novel “Fight Club” but not in the movie, which Leto costarred in). Hearts break and are broken. Communication breaks down. At some point it just becomes a full on romantic drama, with the central question of authorship and fairness replaced by a single nagging question – Will Leto and EMI get back together? Or are they broken up for good?
Well, since everyone knows that the album came out (or at least have watched 30 Seconds to Mars perform with Kayne West in fuzzy YouTube footage), some of the suspense has been robbed, but it’s still surprisingly compelling stuff, even if it goes on for way too long and eventually becomes whiny and repetitive. It’s not easy to root for Leto, mostly because of the pompousness, but as a beacon of sharply focused indignation, it’s hard not to encourage his feisty fight for music industry justice. Problematically, 30 Seconds to Mars, as a band, are completely blank – their music and performances lack character and imagination, which might be the movie’s most crippling fault. For all of their talk of fighting the system and their agonizing war against the corporate monoliths, they are a band whose sound remains utterly populist and commercial. Their song of war becomes hard to sing along to. [B]