Robyn Hitchcock Is Weirder When He’s Not Talking About It and Boy, Does Peter Buck Ever Hate Being In R.E.M.
It’s sort of counterproductive to watch a documentary about someone whose most attractive trait is mystery, and unless the film has something really, really juicy to offer, it risks revealing the man behind the curtain to be a bumbling hack.
That’s not exactly the case with Robyn Hitchcock in the just-released Sundance Channel DVD Sex, Food, Death. . . and Insects, but it’s close.
There are two perfect albums that Robyn Hitchcock has made: I Often Dream of Trains and Underwater Moonlight, with the Soft Boys. Buy them now. Relish in their evocative strangeness. Wonder boundlessly about the man who made them. And then don’t watch this documentary.
“Princess Robyn,” as he calls himself, spends much of his time on camera offering banal, universal observations about the songwriting process. He tells us that he’s obsessed with death and has a lot of rage inside, which is already evident in his music but severely diminished when it’s coming from the horse’s mouth. Delivering pronouncements about pylon cones and trolley bass, he comes off as trying unnecessarily hard to be weird. I mean, I love the Pink Elephant Car Wash sign in Seattle, but it’s certainly not worth a meandering philosophical analysis.
There’s a scene where Hitchcock premieres new material at a house party with his band (basically R.E.M., plus John Paul Jones and minus Michael Stipe & Mike Mills) and he hoodwinks a visibly tired Nick Lowe into singing backups. Lowe shuffles over to the microphone, Robyn compares him to Paul McCartney, but when the music starts it’s quickly apparent that Lowe does not know the song very well at all. It’s off-putting. Elsewhere in the film, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings explain how they were hoodwinked into making an entire album with Hitchcock (Spooked), and we start to wonder if we aren’t getting hoodwinked as well.
The main reason to watch this documentary, friends, is that Peter Buck takes every possible opportunity to demonize his experience in R.E.M. Try as he may, he can scarcely conceal his disgust with the band: “I just have to deal with such crap!” he complains. “I don’t want to spend four hours a day shaking the hands of people I don’t know!”
This year, Peter Buck goes on a nationwide tour with Modest Mouse and The National, traveling, as the members of R.E.M. do, in his own personal bus. When he moans about the ratio of “music to bullshit,” is it okay to not feel all that sorry for the guy?
R.E.M.’s new album, Accelerate, comes out this week.