James Murphy should never have been a rock star. The brains, heart, and weary soul behind the much-loved electronic dance-punk group LCD Soundsystem, Murphy looks like a well-dressed roadie rather than a frontman. At 41, he’s way too old, and his bearish hulk is topped by the face of an unshaven cherub, which in turn is topped by one of the most serious bedheads in modern popular music. Apparently even he had his doubts, for last year, at the peak of LCD Soundsystem’s success, he called it quits and went out with a bang: a sold-out farewell concert at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011.
For a lot of people, that concert was their generation’s Last Waltz, and even if “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the concert documentary/backstage film commemorating the event, isn’t up there with the Martin Scorsese classic, as a memento it’s sometimes touching, sometimes really loud, and often both. The movie initially played a one-off date across the country this summer, but saner heads prevailed and it arrives at the Brattle today for a proper run. Attendance isn’t mandatory, but maybe it should be.
Directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, “Shut Up” is intentionally slapdash, with jumbly hand-held cameras and random bursts of feedback. But there’s a beguiling sense of quiet to it, too. The film intercuts among three moments in time: The concert and its upswell of communal bliss in front of, on, and behind the stage; the morning after, as Murphy confronts life without his band; and an interview conducted by writer Chuck Klosterman, who gently presses the singer on matters of fame and aging.
Some of this is merely banal, including Murphy’s morning playtime with his French bulldog and an office visit with his manager, Keith Woods. Just when you’re about to write that last scene off, though, Woods hands the singer a miniature commemorative model of Madison Square Garden inscribed “LCD Soundsystem Sells Out,” and you begin to understand why Murphy pulled the plug.
The interview sequences are fairly awkward as well, with Murphy self-consciously choosing his words and trying to position the band as ambition-free musical souls who were never very interested in fame. Perhaps. But you do get a sense of a middle-aged ex-DJ who only found his groove once he gave up the rock ’n’ roll dreams of his youth.
And what a groove it was. If you never heard the band, “Shut Up and Play the Hits” may not convert you, but the film easily captures what made it memorable: ridiculously propulsive club rhythms augmented by creative downtown instrumentation (and a lot of cowbell), all graced with Murphy’s droll, compassionate vocals. Tracks like “Us V Them,” “I’m Losing My Edge,” “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” (unheard here, sadly), and the brooding yet warmly inclusive “All My Friends” — one of the great songs of the new millennium — combine thought and rhythm, mind and booty, in ways only mid-period Talking Heads convincingly sorted out.
It might have been nice to have heard more from fellow musicians Nancy Whang (the band’s Tina Weymouth, if you want to play that) or Pat Mahoney, but cameo appearances by Arcade Fire (singing backup on “North American Scum”) and singer Reggie Watts help make up for the lack. And the penultimate live number, a hellacious cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” keeps every ecstatic promise that song ever made.
The final number is, as it should be, Murphy’s double-edged ballad, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” It’s a teary moment, but not as much as the sequence the morning after, where Murphy confronts a warehouse room of his packed-up musical equipment and unexpectedly starts weeping. What’s he going to do without LCD Soundsystem? What are we going to do? There’s only one solution: more cowbell.