Was the last rock renaissance really in New York City in the aughts? That’s the claim filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace make with their documentary adaptation of music journalist Lizzie Goodman’s book “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011.”
This scuzzy, dreamy nonfiction greatest hits compilation prefers lyricism to reportage, with testimony told entirely in voiceover instead of talking heads. It’s also entirely a montage of on-the-fly found footage — of concerts, early interviews, Courtney Love flashing her boobs to a crowd of frothing onlookers during her 24-hour MTV takeover — and it’ll make you feel nostalgia for the bygone heyday of millennial indie rock. The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Moldy Peaches, James Murphy, and Interpol all get significant play here, with the film going back to their DIY roots in Lower Manhattan — but leaves us hanging from there. In other ones, “Meet Me” is music to the ears of their fans but will probably mean little to anyone else.
A near-opening image of a tear-stained Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O taking to the mic in director Patrick Daughters’ “Maps” music video should fling you right back to 2003. Most millennials with a Napster or Limewire account had some relationship to this song, a pulsing ballad in which Karen explains to her tour-bound rocker lover that his fans “don’t love you like I love you.” The documentary segues into a grim moment of affected gravitas as a recording of Ed Begley reading from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” plays over a woozy montage of Lower Manhattan archival footage. It reminds you of why you resent the kind of self-important people who say New York is the only city in the world. And as this recording originated in the late-1950s, “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is making a tall argument that the early-2000s indie rock scene of the LES is somehow on the level of the culture tectonics-shifting Beat Generation era. “Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus! Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.”
Well, Manhattan didn’t turn out to be “forever” for the indie iconoclasts sampled here, as the documentary dourly ends with most of them decamping the city, with Karen O especially “grieving the dissipation of the scene” and “feeling nostalgic for when everything happened.” The movie draws a tenuous but plausible connection between the musicians’ leaving Lower Manhattan behind after September 11 and taking over Brooklyn and the rapid gentrification of the borough that seemingly followed.
Still, editors Andrew Cross and Sam Rice-Edwards draw compelling threads between the bands even as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hold down the fort in Manhattan and the on-the-rise Strokes, headed up by raffish, descended-from-Swiss-models shy guy Julian Casablanca, who was scooped up by Rough Trade and plunked into the U.K. There, The Strokes mix hard partying with performing — to the bewilderment of Moldy Peaches singer Kimya Dawson, then “older and sober,” who asks them, “Don’t you want to remember this?”
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” is true to its written source material in that it’s more of a discursive oral history — one bordering on hagiography, especially when you throw in the Whitman quotation again over another romanticized closing montage of The Manhattan That Was, according to these filmmakers — than a proper documentary. But who’s to say what a proper documentary is, especially one telling the story of a generation of artists who struck violently against the grain? Things fall down in the documentary’s back half as life starts to catch up with the likes of Albert Hammond Jr., whose fellow Strokes members convene around him for an intervention over his heroin addiction (a habit allegedly abetted him by internet-canceled rocker Ryan Adams). Karen O also confesses to an extended period of boozy, druggy self-destruction in the aftermath of the YYYs’ breakout album “Fever to Tell,” at one point nosediving offstage, hitting her head on the ground, and rendered powerless as a monitor collapsed on top of her.
Southern and Lovelace’s documentary appears to be held together by the same proverbial glue and paper clips that cohered the early sonic boom of this particular indie subset. And that’s largely part of its charm. But the results are often navel-gazey. Here’s an example: “Meet Me in the Bathroom” takes a harrowing turn toward history, pulling in the never-not-horrifying found footage of the 9/11 attacks and the detonating collapse of the towers in 2001. Then, there’s a music scene briefly in mourning and fast en route to Williamsburg to rebuild. “Meet Me” seems content to ignore what is a hugely defining moment for Lower Manhattan, and a broader historical framework leaves the indie rock scene of which it is a microcosm feel mostly rudderless and unmoored. Still, a documentary throwback to some of your favorite tracks off “Fever to Tell” or “This Is It” or “Turn on the Bright Lights” is never not welcomed.
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” opens Friday, November 4, in New York and Los Angeles courtesy of Utopia.
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