Up until pretty recently, the question “What the hell happened to Death From Above 1979” was a perfectly valid one. At one point, the band was huge; between 2001 and 2006, they played over five hundred shows around the world. Critics lined up to sing the band’s praises, appearances on shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien were hotly anticipated, their debut album, You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, dominated year-end best-of polls when it was released and the band’s presence on the music scene only seemed to be getting stronger. The future was looking bright – and then the lights went out.
What the hell happened?
It might sound combative but, as Life After Death From Above 1979 contends early in its running (without coming right out and saying so – it’s just implied here), the only thing that COULD happen occurred: the frills and evils (in this case, alcohol) of the excitement that the band generated and the exposure they got took their toll and strained relationships between bassist Jesse Keelor and singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger to their breaking point. Self-preservation required that the band members take leave of each other for a while and, because they were the only two members of the band, the band collapsed.
You’re skeptical, reader, I can tell. The first inclination when one has when it’s implied that popularity was the thing which ended a band is to resist belief, but this documentary makes a convincing case for the possibility. From the film’s opening minutes through its conclusion, excitement about the band and their presence (both on stage and in the recording process which ultimately yeilded You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine – their debut album) just oozes from interview subjects including Last Gang Records co-founder Chris Taylor as well as Yeah Yeah Yeahs keyboardist Nick Zinner and a veritable who’s who of New Rock royalty including members of Justice, MSTRKRFT, The Strokes and Metric.
Because of the tempo that the first twenty minutes of Life After Death From Above 1979 maintains, it doesn’t take long for the excitement which is so earnestly conveyed become totally believable. Viewers will find themselves getting onboard whether they want to play along or not – the film is just that well edited and assembled – but then, just as everyone’s ready to play along, the whole thing goes and gets perfectly formulaic and reliant upon notes and subtitles to help plod its way along.
It’s sort of ironic how stilted the film becomes after its first twenty-minute movement. It’s almost as if director Eva Michon wasn’t sure how to knit the film’s story together, so she elected to rely on scenes like:
2005 – Alcohol begins to play a problematic role within the band, and both relationships and tempers are tested.
2006 – The band implodes. Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger part ways. MSTRKRFT is born to Keeler and collaborator Al-P, and Grainger’s solo band, The Mountains, also releases an album in the same year.
2011 – Five years after the break-up, and life had reverted to normal – but the offers of reunion shows and lengthier tours were ultimately accepted after a bit of deliberation. Death From Above’s complete reunion tour ran from 2011 to 2012.
Hilariously, the time that Life After Death From Above… takes to rattle through these (theoretically) important plot points is the slowest and most arduous part of the film’s play but, happily, it picks up again when a subtitle announces that work starts on new music, and then gets visually satisfying again with a bit of footage from Death From Above’s performance at Coachella 2011. Clearly having regained a bit of steam, the film moves along smoothly through the creative process which produced the group’s sophomore effort, The Physical World. It’s then that the footage implies that all fences have been mended for the band, and the documentary ends with a caption proclaiming what fans already know: ten years after the release of You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, Death From Above 1979 finally released its sophomore full-length album. It’s then that the credits roll.
Stepping back and looking at Life After Death From Above 1979 and the methodology it utilized to make its way along, words like “angular” and “awkward” come to mind. The plot points needed to tell this story effectively are present in this film, but they’re not well-used and the film misses the impact its hoping for as a result. That’s unfortunate because the story and desire are obvious; that it falls short on delivery is regrettable to say the least.
Life After Death From Above 1979 trailer: vimeo.com/ondemand/21561/107103408
Ground Control Magazine: Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World [Album review]
Life After Death From Above 1979 was released exclusively on Vimeo On Demand on October 7, 2014: vimeo.com/ondemand/dfa1979movie.