In the days before the advent of MTV, before video killed the radio star, cinema was as vital to the definition of the worlds premier rock bands as the music itself. From "Dont Look Back" to "The Last Waltz," the documentary offered a glimpse of the rock star that vinyl did not afford and television would not dare. Seldom-seen films like Bob Dylan's "Eat the Document" and the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues" are notorious to the point of legend. But after the release in the late '80s-early '90s of a few high-profile documentaries -- Sting's "Bring on the Night," U2's "Rattle and Hum," Madonna's "Truth or Dare" -- the genre has all but disappeared in recent years, save for an IMAX Stones concert film that gave audiences the chance to see close-ups of Keith Richards' liver spots on a 70-foot screen. But now that MTV has rendered itself musically irrelevant, and the Internet has splintered the collective pop consciousness into a thousand disparate pieces, the time seems right for a rockumentary comeback to cultivate a sense of the universally experienced spectacle. Leading the would-be revival is "Meeting People is Easy," a film by video director Grant Gee chronicling Radiohead's 1997-98 world tour, which is playing to sold-out houses in a limited theatrical run before its May 4 home video release.
Shot in Super 8 and video, Gee's gritty effort lacks the cinematic pomp of Led Zeppelin's Dungeons and Dragons-soaked "The Song Remains the Same," but it is also more than the average straight-to-video tour souvenir. "Meeting People is Easy" is the quintessential 1999 rock documentary in the same way that "Gimme Shelter" is the quintessential 1969 rock documentary; it's as much about a moment in time as it is about the music. Gee's movie debunks the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll myth that bands like the Stones and Zeppelin worked so hard to forge, and instead offers a portrait of a band caught in the endless PR quagmire that is the inevitable, if unwanted, windfall of a critically and commercially successful album. Radiohead's universe not only seems devoid of sex and drugs; even the rock 'n' roll gets short shrift compared to the litany of photo sessions and interviews. The film is very much about tedium, but manages not to be tedious itself. Still, watching this marked the first time in my entire life that I didn't want to be a rock star.
"Meeting People is Easy" serves as a convincing companion piece to 1997's "OK Computer," Radiohead's lauded-to-the-point-of-embarrassment third album, a sort of concept record about the banality of media oversaturation and its resulting alienation. U2, a band to whom Radiohead is often compared, plunked, like, a billion dollars into their "Zoo TV" tour trying to make this same point with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film festival. By contrast, the overabundance of words and images in the Radiohead documentary lead to feelings of dread and emptiness, not overstimulation - and not just among the audience, but in the increasingly despondent band members onscreen.
Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood and guitarist Ed O'Brien are sports about fielding inane questions from clueless journalists or recording never-ending promo spots for radio stations, but lead singer and songwriter Thom Yorke looks as if he might crack at any moment. While his bandmates unwind at a post-show fete, Yorke is caught pacing around his dressing room by one of Gee's hidden cameras, nervously picking at the detritus of a deli tray, looking not at all like a rock star enjoying the high life. Yorke's brooding does not come off like an affectation for the cameras intended to buttress a dour image -- he truly seems ill at ease everywhere except onstage, and even then his presence is intense but aloof. (And as far as rock star sex symbols go, the best that can be said for Yorke is that he does for the lazy eye what Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler did for grossly oversized lips.)
Of course, it could be argued that all this gloom and angst is not what we want to see in our rock stars, and certainly not what we want to see in movies about rock stars. Fairly or not, Gee places the blame not on the personalities of the band members, which get little play here, but on the realities of what it means to be a major rock band amid the corporate synergy of the late '90s. "Woodstock" had brown acid and mud; "Meeting People is Easy" has white noise and press junkets. There is every indication that Thom Yorke would prefer a coke-fueled romp with barely legal groupies to answering any more questions for Japanese radio. In fact, there is every indication that Thom Yorke would prefer a Novocain-free round of root canal to answering any more questions for Japanese radio. But Radiohead does have a sense of humor, and so does Gee's film. If it doesn't immediately come off as funny, that's because ultimately, the joke's on us. Gee stops short of being openly disdainful of the band's fans, but it's worth noting that the film ends with a version of "OK Computer's" "Exit Music (for a Film)." As the credits roll, Yorke sings, over and over, "We hope that you choke."