When I was in high school, a few of my friends were what you might call "serious ravers." Weekends at NAF and FX, Jncos and

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The Public Psychedelic Reel: On Watching the New Chemical Brothers Concert Film Don't Think

When I was in high school, a few of my friends were what you might call "serious ravers." Weekends at NAF and FX, Jncos and candy necklaces, that sort of thing. I was mostly going to punk shows, and harboring an unhealthy skepticism about club drugs, but I was also listening to the big electronic acts of the time. Only, I was doing it on my headphones, on car and home stereos, and via 107.7's electronic show Ultrasound and MTV's actually pretty awesome AMP. I also saw a few big acts of the day--Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers (both at the Paramount), the Prodigy at Endfest one year back when it was in Bremerton, Moby at RKCNDY and Crystal Method at DV8--and I've since been to far better dance parties and raves then I probably would have been privy to as a high schooler in Redmond, and overall I think I got the better, or at least equal end of the whole deal. But: I know what it's like to experience electronic music, and its attended rave culture, from a slightly voyeuristic, vicarious remove.

So the idea of trucking up to Northgate to sit in a movie theater and watch a film documenting the Chemical Brothers' live show strikes a weird nostalgic chord with me. Of course I had to do it.

Appropriately, my partner on this trip through time and space was my old high school friend Andy, who, like me, also loved electronic music but was too nerdy or uptight to really fuck with raves back in the day. One time, he and I stayed in and took mushrooms at the house where I was renting a room next to Bellevue Community College, and at one point in the night ended up sitting in his car on the street out front, listening to Dig Your Own Hole with our seats leaned back and the dead end road all dark outside. I recall it sounded excellent, and maybe a little more expansive than usual.

By the mid-00s, even as I was starting to DJ actual dance music and parties, I had pretty much written off the Chemical Brothers, who were making increasingly rock-ified albums, as having their best days--the heady sampled grooves of Exit Planet Dust and big beat and techno of Dig Your Own Hole--behind them. Destined for nothing more than lopsided Best Of compilations and over-priced festival appearances. Then they went and released 2010's Further, an outstanding return to form that made me suddenly start thinking maybe those festivals weren't so overpriced after all. To say nothing of the live Youtube clips that were leaking out of places like Coachella.

So, of course, their new film Don't Think, should sound a hell of a lot better than Andy's car stereo speakers and look a sight sharper than some fan-shot Youtube clip. (Some mushrooms probably still wouldn't hurt, though.) But up at the Thornton Place theater, where the movie played to about a 1/3 full room (a simultaneous showing at Pacific Place was supposedly sold-out), the volume, and especially the bass, was less explosive than most action movies I've been to. (Eventually, I think someone complained and they turned it up a little, but it never sounded anything like THX.) We'll get to the visuals in a minute.

The film documented a single show from the Chemical Brothers' 2010/2011 tour, at a festival at Mt. Fuji, Japan. The set was a smart, well sequenced mix of big tunes from throughout their career: "Leave Home," "Setting Sun," "Block Rockin' Beats," "Out of Control," "Believe," "Do It Again," "Escape Velocity," "Swoon"--as well as vocal snippets from other songs used for mixing. They also totally righteously ended their pre-encore set with a sample of trance cheeseball Sven Vath saying "it's the lifestyle we're living," off of the excellent Sven Vath soundboard.

The visuals--well, you can get a pretty good idea of them from Youtube. There were trippy lights, a couple of reverse silhouettes without iPods running and falling, and way more scary clowns than I would've expected. It was all a lot more high-tech than I remembered them having back at the Paramount in '98 or whenever. For the film, the visuals were meant to bleed into the audience, and they did so by charmingly lo-fi means: dancing bugs or the aforementioned clown were projected at smaller-scale onto surfaces out in the festival's midway, or when an army of toy robots was marching on screen behind the Chemical Brothers, the crew set up little actual toy robots around the festival site and filmed them (cute).

One striking Japanese girl acted as the film audience's surrogate, twice wandering off into some "trippy" interludes in the crowd. But it might have been the less staged reaction shots that really drew you in, made you wish you were there--especially one terrifically unhinged dude who spent apparently the whole show screaming, mouth stretched wide, face taut in a rictus of glee. The crowd at the theater was more sedate, although one dude was encouragingly shuffling and bobbing in his seat the whole time.

Both live concerts and films have to compete with home viewing or listening these days, but Don't Think was a good reminder that the live concert has a lot more going for it in that battle than the film industry does. If I'd wanted to watch this film at home, I could've pulled my laptop up on my chest and had just as big a screen, and I probably would've had better sound on my headphones. But listening to a record at home, even though it might be of better fidelity or better performed than a live show, cannot compete with the mass social experience of a concert. (On the other hand, watching a move with friends at home--where you can talk, drink, pause for a break, whatever--is almost always more social than doing so in a theater.) So, watch this film, sure, but somebody bring these guys back to Seattle again already.

 
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