Kerouac was cool because had no idea he was, Dennis Miller once said.
That may be true, but James Murphy is painfully aware of how cool he is, and often isn’t, and that somehow makes him about as cool as it gets.
Murphy has become an iconic, unlikely rock star in recent years as the driving force behind the dance-punk act LCD Soundsystem, mixing a unique blend of nostalgia, rock geek obsession, and hyper self-awareness, all set to brilliant electronic beats. Then, right at the band’s peak, he decided to call it quits.
Murphy’s music career has been going on for decades in various forms, but in his late 30s he suddenly found himself a celebrity. How it got to that point, and why he decided to bow out just a few years later, is the surprisingly moving story behind the feature-length “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” now on DVD. The film documents why Murphy decided to end the band, through a frank interview with Chuck Klosterman, and how he decided to go out, through footage from the raging three-and-a-half-hour final performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011.
Footage of the show is interwoven with recordings of the Chuck Klosterman interview, along with touching, often unflattering behind-the-scenes footage of Murphy—stocky, greying and disheveled—coping with LCD Soundsystem’s retirement. The film is an entertaining documentary of the orchestrated end of a beloved musical act, but also a meditation on the importance of music, what it means to age, and the joy and pain of having something great and the inevitability of losing it. Also dancing.
Like Murphy’s music, the film cycles between humor, moroseness, and some of the best dance punk since the Stooges. Also like the music, it is painfully self-conscious.
In one scene Murphy trims his beard for a good extended while, set to voiceover from the Klosterman interview. In another, he frets over how every time he tours his beard greys more than when he doesn’t. There are a lot of beards in the film.
He’s details his shrewd, well-reasoned exit at the top of his game, but relentlessly seems to be questioning whether it’s the right thing to do, and more importantly, whether it’s for the right reasons. Does he really want to pursue other projects, or is he just terrified of success?
But what could come across as narcissism, in the guise of LCD Soundsystem, instead feels relatable and sweet. Footage of thousands of fans screaming, crying, dancing in rapture, are intercut with Murphy in pajamas walking his French bulldog, cleaning his espresso machine, crying amid unused music gear in storage.
He’s most definitely a rock star, but he also gets upset when his little dog won’t eat her food in the morning.
In this way, he’s not unlike Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, balding in clunky glasses, you could imagine Finn writing a novel or working at a record store before fronting a band. But both somehow rock harder and with more soul than some of the very influences they wear on they’re sleeves. Part of the joy of watching both perform is seeing their fanboy enthusiasm for rock as a religion, combined with the fact they actually get on stage and do the thing so damn well.
I think Murphy pulls off this self-deprecating charisma, and has become one of most likable acts in recent years as a result, by finding the perfect pitch between sincerity and irony. It would be tempting to say that his music is comedy if it weren’t that the music on its own was so good. And it would be tempting to say that the music is pretentious, if it weren’t that the pretensions he puts on were so funny.
What kind of rock star wears a tuxedo a la Bryan Ferry to all of his shows? The kind of rock star who also looks like he just pulled that tuxedo out of the dirty clothes hamper. What kind of songwriter makes a song that just lists off the coolest bands he can think of? The kind of songwriter who is terrified that the list he’s rattling off is no longer cool.
That song is “Losing My Edge,” which interestingly enough was one of the first he recorded as LCD Soundsystem in 2002. It describes Murphy’s life just prior to the band, as a mature DJ and rock producer, who has loosened up a bit and finally feels like he’s mastered his craft, only to feel the younger generation starting to beat him at his own game. It’s genuinely funny and takes the wind out of these kids in their “little jackets” as the indie rock scene was just starting to explode. But there’s also a serious fear and desperation behind it.
People always say, LCD Soundsystem has funny songs and serious songs, and “Losing My Edge” is funny, Murphy tells Klosterman. “But to me, that song’s as serious as a heart attack.”
It’s that perfect pitch — truth through artifice. Lyrically it’s a tribute, an overwrought examination of what good music is and isn’t, a sarcastic critique of changing styles, and serious underlying ideas. Don’t worry, this is all kind of a put on. But really, it’s not at all.
Klosterman asks whether LCD Soundsystem is more about the music or the culture, to which Murphy responds that it has to be both. Because every rock star he ever believed in, he had to love not just for the music, but for what the performer was up there trying to do. LCD Soundsystem may be fun and funny, but James Murphy is trying to do something real, and serious.
That’s the reason 18,000 people packed Madison Square Garden for that final show, (and why I watched it streaming on my laptop in Denver, CO). They get it. They understand that deep longing to make something — just one thing — that is good. That is worthy of getting up on that stage. That one night when Daft Punk is playing at your house. (your house)
So why stop? Klosterman suggests that Murphy is highly aware of his own age (41 at the time), and perhaps feels a little silly being a rock star. Or maybe riding that edge of being really, truly cool is hard to maintain.
But another possibility is that he’s pretty tired, and doesn’t really like being famous or having a persona. And the life of a rock star in your 40s is fucking exhausting.
“I was 38 and I decided to make a record; I blinked and I was 41. Blink twice more and I’m 50.”
That’s the kind of sentiment that draws people like me, and the legions of fans who associate with being a full grown adult who still would like to go out dancing and take some drugs and be okay with that. And it’s why we understand why Murphy called it quits.
When something great is gone, well that’s not so bad.