Meet Me in the Bathroom
Documentary film directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern
In cinemas March 16
Review by Barry Healy
Meet Me in the Bathroom will certainly appeal to fans of the early 2000s New York indie music scene. But the documentary attempts to cover broader themes to make it relevant to a wider audience.
It aspires to show how a group of musicians responded to the social and political climate of their time and created a vibrant cultural movement. By using 1950s Beat poetry at the beginning and end, it presents this later generation as continuators of the earlier, radically subversive cultural movement.
Strangely, it actually demonstrates how much of a bubble the people featured inhabited, barely touched by what was going on around them. They were getting drunk and stoned and living on Planet Cool.
From the opening scenes you can predict each development: alienated kids meet up in Big City, inhabit a bohemian circle, act outrageously, make music, get discovered by the music industry, make the big time, take drugs, get ruthlessly exploited by the industry, be unhappy (actually, “take drugs” is at every step of the way).
In terms of capitalist alienation, it’s worth noting that the indie music scene of the early 2000s was a response to the commercialisation of 1990s music, which is probably true of every wave of popular music. These bands were reacting against the homogenization of mainstream music and the commodification of artistic expression. They created a DIY ethos prioritising authenticity over commercial success – until commercial success found them!
The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Moldy Peaches, LCD Sound System and the few others shown came together in Manhattan’s cheap-rent Lower East Side. After the 9/11 attacks and the rise in housing rentals they, and the young demographic they were part of, moved to a low-priced part of Brooklyn.
There the bohemian scene came into its own and, in turn, fostered gentrification! That has never happened to an area that you know, correct?
It is striking that the only Black people’s faces that turn up on screen are in a couple of clips from this Brooklyn period.
The notion of authenticity that drives much of these bands’ behaviour (alongside drugs and alcohol) has political roots. In the 1930s, Black blues musicians were actually recorded in the cotton fields and prisons by the musicologist, Alan Lomax (which can be heard here).
Those singers, epitomised by Lead Belly, were regarded as authentic representations of the oppressed by the radical cultural scene fostered by the US Communist Party in the New Deal era. It was an Americanisation of the Soviet Union’s Stalin-era, Socialist Realist arts movement.
Blues birthed Rhythm and Blues, which evolved into Rock. The esteem for art-born-of-suffering therein echoed down through the decades and became a performance in the hands of say, Bob Dylan and succeeding rockers. To be able to point to poor family roots was a mark of legitimacy, which could be simulated where necessary.
What does it amount to when the two founders of The Strokes first met in an exclusive Swiss private boarding school? Or when Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lead singer, Karen O talks about the liberatory effect of watching the movie Dirty Dancing as a child: “You go away for the summer with your family, you stumble into this underbelly … this cool, sexy, like, you know … scene.”
Meet Me in the Bathroom could have examined how it is that young people can experience such world-weariness while living comparatively privileged lives in the belly of the imperialist beast. These musicians did experience genuine alienation from their capitalist environment and that shaped their aesthetic which, in turn, found an audience that recognised it.
This is no way belittles these bands’ talents and the excellence of their music. It is just that Meet Me in the Bathroom never examines the performative and clichéd assumptions that it is based upon and apart from disconnected gestures does not link the music to its times.
The most politically interesting material by The Strokes lead singer, Julian Casablancas is not to be seen here, it is on the internet. He has recorded a series of video interviews for Rolling Stone under the title S.O.S. Earth is a Mess. All the visuals are informed by LSD, but the politics is provided by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Marxist economist, Richard Wolff.
Not a hint of this appears in Meet Me in the Bathroom!
The trailer for Meet Me in the Bathroom can be seen here.