On April 2nd, 2011, when frontman James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem casually said into the microphone, “This is our last song, ” to the thousands of fans dancing at Madison Square Garden, he wasn’t kidding. At the band’s peak of popularity, Murphy decided to retire the group and orchestrated a final performance with a film team to record the historic moment. SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS, directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is the captivating documentary concert film that deftly weaves together footage from the band’s farewell show with a fascinating character study of Murphy coming to terms with his decision.
“The historical context of LCD as a band, where they met, album-by-album breakdowns of their work, or anecdotes from the road, were much less interesting to us than exploring why you would decide to end a band in its prime and what the emotional aftermath of that decision would feel like,” say Directors Southern and Lovelace. “We wanted it to be more emotive, a film about the way an ending feels, than a definitive factual telling of a band’s story.”
On the film’s look, the directors explain, “We wanted it to look as cinematic as possible, and for the performance to be in turns both intimate and epic.”
Using long lenses for the non-concert scenes, Morano kept a distance from her subject allowing for the “normal life” moments to feel very intimate. Lovelace adds, “The intention was for the scenes the day after to feel very ordinary and very patient. For us tone and atmosphere were more important than action.” Images of the quiet portrait are juxtaposed with the high-energy performance, visually representing the range of emotions we imagine are part of Murphy’s personal introspection. Working with only one Assistant Cameraman, Morano says, “I love shooting things on the fly and the challenge of trying to make something look beautiful without crew and using only available lighting. It was very liberating and very different than my narrative projects.”
Southern and Lovelace explain the motivation for the shooting style of the concert was to capture the experience of being at the show and to “concentrate on the audience as much as the band members and the way they related to each other.” The directors were adamant about maintaining an old school approach to the shoot, avoiding the use of monitors, Technocranes, dollies or live talkback. “We tried to use vintage lenses as much as possible to add further texture, lens flare and the happy accidents that older lenses often throw up.”
The need for a highly mobile, reliable and untethered camera system to continuously record the concert motivated the team to shoot digitally. Notes Producer Lucas Ochoa, “We first approached ALEXA because we thought it would be a balanced compromise over all these areas – but we quickly found that it exceeded all of our expectations. Key for us was image quality – the pictures are phenomenal and about as close to 35 as it gets without the accompanying circus that always comes with shooting film. Exactly the kind of circus that just isn’t practical on a 13-camera, 3.5 hour shoot, when you’re out on your own at one of the biggest shows to hit Madison Square Garden in a while. In the end it was the only rational choice for us.”
The directors add, “We’re still huge fans of shooting on film when possible, but on a shoot like this it’s just not a feasible option and for us it’s great that there is such a strong alternative. We love the look of ALEXA, above and beyond other digital camera systems, it’s nicer to work with in post, and the cameras themselves are really intuitive to operate.”
Thirteen cameras were used to shoot the performance – two roaming ALEXAs operated by Morano and veteran filmmaker Spike Jonze, eight ALEXAs at fixed stations, and three Canon 5Ds mounted on the ceiling. Using only prime lenses, Morano set the cameras at 800 ASA, recorded in ProRes 444 Log C, and worked with available lighting. “I wasn’t really worried about shooting with available light because I knew the ALEXA would be fine under those circumstances. Because we were shooting in a concert scenario with low and bright light all at once, a lot of times you could set the aperture and just leave it there.”
Throughout the concert, Morano stayed close to the band, went into the audience to capture the fans, and followed Murphy behind the stage. Better than a backstage pass, Morano’s images place you in the middle of the performance – from seeing the sweat bead down Murphy’s forehead, to the smiles exchanged between musicians. As a fan herself, Morano confesses, “I loved the exhilaration and thrill I felt shooting onstage at Madison Square Garden in front of a packed house! When in my life was I ever going to experience that? Especially while doing my favorite thing (shooting) while amazing musicians were performing!”
The emotional narrative of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS is driven by an interview Chuck Klosterman had with Murphy the day before the concert. Digging into Murphy’s psyche, the interview became what the directors call the “spine of the film” — finding resonance in Murphy talk from the perspective of before the show, while cutting together scenes from the day after. With 100 hours of footage and seven months in the editing room, SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS finished just in time to premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.”
“The thing that unites great concert films, whether it be MONTEREY POP or STOP MAKING SENSE, is that they are like time capsules – they preserve a moment in time in quite a pure way, and that’s something we hoped to achieve with this film,” says Southern. SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS not only succeeds as a fascinating chronicle of the end of a band, it investigates ideas about age and mortality, and ultimately forces us to think about the decisions we make in our own lives.
The directors have enjoyed the reception and praise the film has been reaping. “It feels great. Especially watching the film with audiences in a theatre and meeting people who were at Madison Square Garden and say the film feels just like being there. It’s also been interesting talking to people at film festivals who had never heard of LCD before watching the film, and finding that it works for an audience outside of the fans. That has been really satisfying.”
This article first appeared on August 27, 2012 for ARRI NEWS, as part of the theatrical launch of “Shut Up and Play the Hits.”