What makes a band walk away from everything while still at the top of its game?
"That's the thing that interested us about the story — it's kind of the opposite of what a band usually does," says Dylan Southern, codirector with Will Lovelace of Shut Up and Play the Hits.
The forthcoming documentary follows indie-dance icon James Murphy and his decision to disband LCD Soundsystem at the pinnacle of the group's career. The film also captures LCD's final sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden, and the strange, quiet aftermath.
When they began thinking about Shut Up and Play the Hits, Southern and Lovelace had just finished another music doc, No Distance Left to Run, about the band Blur, and they were in search of a more personal project. Being fans of LCD's work, they approached lead singer Murphy.
"James isn't a huge rock-star figure. He just seems like you could sit down and talk with him," Southern says. "I think the music operates on two levels as well. You can dance to it, but there's something else there too. I think that's what appealed to us about making the film about the band. I guess that's what appeals about them in general."
Soon after the pair sat down with Murphy, the final LCD Soundsystem show was announced. And immediately, the directors found the narrative focus of their film. But Shut Up and Play the Hits is more than a concert flick; it explores Murphy's desire to leave a lasting legacy, free from the downward spiral of irrelevancy that usually characterizes the end of a band. "I think James always saw [LCD] as a finite thing," Southern explains.
However, such a huge decision left Murphy feeling vulnerable. "It's bittersweet ending a band," Southern says. "In the conversation that he's having throughout the film, there is a sense of doubt about whether it's the right decision. And James, once he's made his decision, he sees it through."
But to really understand the LCD bandleader's motivations, the filmmakers needed help to "get inside James's head." So they contacted legendary music journalist Chuck Klosterman. "We basically just put those two together a week before the show, and it was an amazing conversation," Southern nods. "It kind of acts as the spine of the film."
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Filming the four-hour final performance was the most difficult part. The directors wanted to capture the energy, sadness, and elation coursing through the crowd and musicians. It was a surreal arena-size dance party, because it was also like a funeral. So Southern and Lovelace thought the juxtaposition of a few banal day-after details would best illustrate the point.
"The event was amazing. The atmosphere was incredible," Southern says. "And then just to see more mundane, more kind of patient scenes, where James is just waking up and taking the dog out... It seemed like a really good concept."
"James, the next day, when he goes and visits the storage room," Lovelace adds, "he broke down, and that was a thing that we hadn't expected. That was sort of an amazing moment."
In the end, Shut Up and Play the Hits attempts to be more than just the last stand of an indie-dance crew beloved by thousands. It will be loud and it will make you dance. But it also tries to be as unique as LCD, the band that ended on the perfect note.