“There are only three ways to end your career as a rock star,” Stephen Colbert tells James Murphy in a clip shown near the beginning of Shut Up and Play the Hits, a good concert movie but not very revealing look at the end of LCD Soundsystem, which I saw at Sundance. “Overdose, overstay your welcome, or write Spider-Man: The Musical.” Clearly, Murphy and LCD Soundsystem did none of those things. And while the footage of their final, sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden is undeniably joyous, the movie doesn’t have much to offer in terms of explaining what it means to Murphy — or the other members of the band — that their grand experiment is over, or in terms of helping us understand Murphy himself.
I should admit that while I like LCD Soundsystem just fine, I’m not particularly bought into the voice-of-a-generation hype. The movie may work better for very, very passionate fans of Murphy and the band, especially since it spends a lot of time validating their greatness. The most direct and irritating form of this is a deeply grating interview with Chuck Klosterman that’s meant to tie together concert segments and scenes of Murphy wandering around New York in a day-after-it-all-ends haze. Klosterman spends about half his time expounding personal theories, like “the Internet was causing people to have a different relationship with history,” or that “bands are sort of remembered for their collected successes, but they’re sort of defined by their singular failures” that might have seemed profound when he was in college, but don’t elicit particularly specific or revealing answers. When he does manage to get something interesting out of Murphy, it’s usually by asking a question that’s fawning in the extreme, like how Murphy thinks the audience (which in the movie, includes a guy who’s weeping uncontrollably and Donald Glover) reacts to him. “I’ve never been to a show I loved where I didn’t believe something about that person,” Murphy tells him, though he never explores the gap between that perception and reality. “Up there, there’s something happening that I’m not a sixteen-year-old and I’m still transported by.”
Age and gender would have been other areas where the movie could have produced some interesting introspection, but instead, it never goes beyond the level of observation. “If you were a writer, you’d still be young. If you were an actor, you’d be right in the sweet spot,” Klosterman tells him. But the movie doesn’t talk at all what it means about the market that Murphy became a rock star at an advanced age, or what his gender’s allowed him to achieve that might not have been possible if he were a woman. “I’m 41, and I don’t have kids, and I want to have kids,” Murphy says at some point. But Shut Up and Play the Hits never tells us if he’s single or taken, and if single, why it hasn’t worked out previously for reasons other than the fact that he spent some time being a rock star. Watching Murphy lie on the floor of his expensive New York apartment, reach up and open the door of his fancy stove revealing a pizza stone within, and then closing it again, is not a substitute for information and insight.
That said, the music sounds dandy, and the up-close look at musicians putting together a show on stage with all the tweaks that implies is a lot of fun to watch. If Shut Up and Play the Hits were just a straight concert movie, it’d be a delight for fans to watch and a terrific introduction to the band for folks who are coming too late to the party. But the interstitial material only really works if you’re not just familiar with LCD Soundsystem but a supplicant at their particular altar.