This may be a film site, but if you walk by Projector headquarters today, you'll notice that the flags are flying at half mast and it's not because of anything movie-related. The reason is that one of our favorite bands, R.E.M., has decided to call it quits. One of the great musical units of the last 30 years, without question ... but it also got me thinking about what sort of film legacy (if any) they leave behind. They're not a group who ever released a concert film (like the Rolling Stones or U2), but they did put out a few concert videos that were fan items to accompany different tours. But maybe the last concert movie they ever made is the one that best sums up all the reasons why we loved them but also all the things that were lacking at the end. It's called "This Is Not a Show."
Like a lot of music films, "This Is Not a Show" got its premiere at a film festival although it didn't end up playing in theaters. Debuting at Sound Unseen in 2009, the movie documents the band's 2007 live rehearsals from Dublin in which the trio decided to try out a bunch of brand new songs that would end up on their 2008 "comeback" album "Accelerate." The 55-minute film became part of the package with a subsequent live disc, and it's very much meant to be for fans: I can't imagine a worse introduction to singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills than this artsy curio. But for those who love these guys -- for those who have marked seasons of their life with this band's songs -- it's a treat in a lot of ways.
"This Is Not a Show" was directed by French filmmakers Vincent Moon and Jeremiah, and it's split down the middle into the two traditional concert-film pieces: You've got the stuff on stage, and then you've got the stuff behind the scenes. But both pieces are presented a little differently in "This Is Not a Show." The concert bits are filmed in black-and-white with heavy shadows and in a style that sometimes, as Variety's review unkindly claimed, "looks to have been shot by a camera-flailing toddler in the 10th row." As for the backstage stuff, you don't see the guys from R.E.M. in any of it. Instead, you get non sequiturs featuring crew members running around or fans filing into the Olympia Theatre. Most concert DVDs are about making you feel like you were there, but "This Is Not a Show" flips that assumption. You're there, but you're not quite there. It's dreamlike but also disjointed. I can't think of another concert film that replicated that exact feeling of what it's like to be at a show trying to crane around the people standing in front of you to get a glimpse of the band on stage.
As for the band members, their personalities pop. Buck is the Zen-like wizard on the guitar. Mills is the sweetly melodic lynchpin. And Stipe ... well, it's almost impossible for me to objectively discuss the man. It's not that he's probably just the most important frontman of my life -- we share a birthday, too. So these things are incredibly personal. But that mixture of ego, insecurity, goodwill, stridency, star power, charm and cheeky humor that have ruled his career are all on display here. And I think it's fair to say that he rose to the occasion documented in "This Is Not a Show." The band had reached a creative nadir after 2004's "Around the Sun," and so going into "Accelerate" there was a sense that R.E.M. had something to prove. That sense bleeds through in "This Is Not a Show," but so does the notion that they were not going to concern themselves with staying at the top of the rock 'n' roll heap. They had tasted worldwide fame in the late '80s and early '90s, but after the departure of founding drummer Bill Berry in 1997, they seemed determined to go down their own road and not worry about platinum success. Maybe that's why "This Is Not a Show" feels so intimate in a way a lot of "unplugged" shows from super-popular bands never quite did. When Stipe tells the crowd that they're legitimately terrified trying out these songs in front of an audience, you sorta believe him.
But even someone like me who's loved them for so long can't deny that "This Is Not a Show" also contains all the signs of what ultimately marred their later albums. Still writing strong, durable songs, R.E.M. simply weren't able to produce magnificently original albums anymore. Even the songs in this film that would end up on "Accelerate" just weren't as indelible as what had come before. Complacency and routine had long ago seeped into their work. People get older, that initial creative spark gives way to professionalism, we start to know what to expect from a band that used to astonish us. That's all in "This Is Not a Show" as well, giving it a poignancy that maybe even the band members don't quite recognize. They want to believe they're still at the top of their game. But we know they're not.
Is "This Is Not a Show" definitive? Not by a long shot. But one of the things I loved best about R.E.M. was how incredibly human they seemed. "This Is Not a Show" is pretentious and occasionally off-putting, but it's also incredibly warm and inviting. And it's very, very human. It's not a definitive film, but it's very them.
Here's their final film in its entirety. There's some swearing in it, so be careful if you're at work. Also if you're at work, try not to sing along too loud to "Until the Day Is Done."