Review: Shut Up and Play the Hits


[This review was originally posted as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2012 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with its wider theatrical release.]

“There are only three ways to end your career if you’re a rocker: Overdose, overstay your welcome, or write ‘Spider-Man: The Musical,'” comedian Stephen Colbert tells James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) early into the film.

It’s funny because it’s true. Bands rarely end in such a calm, calculated way as LCD Soundsystem. Murphy made his final album, made an announcement he would retire, and then he played his final show to a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Shut Up and Play the Hits is like a modern Last Waltz that is a bittersweet tribute and document of one of the past decade’s most influential artists.

Shut Up and Play the Hits
Director: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern
Rating: NR
Release Date: TBA

James Murphy is excellent at channeling beloved bands of the ’70s and ’80s (New Order, David Bowie), but he does it with a style and sensibility that is all his own. Murphy spent 20 years in punk bands that played house shows and never got any recognition. In the early ’00s, he started LCD Soundsystem with the goal of channeling his influences and giving people a reason to dance. This goal is intact at the group’s final show, which is filled with bombast, lightworks, and cover songs.

As someone who is only a mild fan of Murphy, it’s hard to deny that he is an excellent musician, producer, and entertainer. The way he dances, the ways he talks, and the way he sings is sheer class, which is a big reason why this documentary works so well. The other part is directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, who previously filmed Blur documentary No Distance Left to Run. It was a wonderfully shot film, but badly paced and filled with lame interviews that felt like promotional items for a press release. their follow-up is a big step up.

Lovelace and Southern have refined their approach and hired 13 very talented directors of photography to film LCD Soundsystem’s last night on Earth. The musicianship, lively audience, and impressive light show are wonderfully shot and edited together. Unconventional shots, such as a bird’s eye view above the massive audience to slow-mo shots of crowd surfers, create an ethereal quality to the show. This isn’t a film that settles for putting the viewer in the position of the audience; instead, it makes you feel like you are the venue, filled with music and people breathing inside you. You see everything, but not in a cheesy, “cameras constantly panning across the stage” kind of way.

When the band isn’t playing the hits (“North American Scum” [with Arcade Fire!], “Us vs Them”, “Losing My Edge”), the film follows James Murphy around his daily life in New York. He cuddles with his adorable french pitbull, meets friends for dinner, discusses post-LCD Soundsystem life with his amiable manager, and speaks to Chuck Klosterman in a fascinating interview that is so pretentious it works (“When does something become art?,” he asks.)

Shut Up and Play the Hits gives me what all great live concerts give me: a re-sparked interest to rediscover to an artist’s catalog.  I’m disappointed this is more of a concert film than a biographical film, since Murphy is such a well-spoken, fascinating person. The Q&A after the film only reconfirmed that I can listen to this guy talk for an hour. But, Murphy isn’t a talker. He prefers to just shut up and play the hits and that’s perfectly fine.