An unnatural truth: Nothing ends anymore. When the cursor reaches the bottom of your timeline, another screen loads.
So we were skeptical when James Murphy promised the end of LCD Soundsystem last spring. Artists high and low have cashed in on the threat of their nonexistence for decades. The Pixies reunited. Roger Waters is trotting The Wall around the world again. Hologram Tupac has his own booking agent. Everybody comes back until the money runs out.
Despite our skepticism, we gave a shit because LCD Soundsystem is one of the Great Bands of the Last Decade. James Murphy, LCD’s heart, soul and mind, was noble in his desire to cut off the band at its peak. He seemed like the kind of artist—magnetically self-aware, true to some vague indie ethos partially of his own design—to really do it. This could really be a beautiful death of something beautiful. Finally, we thought, a finale.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Shut Up and Play the Hits reanimates LCD Soundsystem (still pined for or already forgotten?) by revisiting its final show at Madison Square Garden for 90 big-screen, surround-sound minutes. It’s a glorious second coming.
A concert film needs to do three things to be successful: make you wish you were there, make you feel like you were there, and give you more than you would’ve gotten if you were there. Shut Up does all three.
It opens the morning after the concert, Murphy scruffily padding around his Manhattan Williamsburg apartment, feeding his dog, making coffee, talking on his cell. This, apparently, is the unremarkable life that LCD Soundsystem impedes. This is what Murphy wants, what he’s willing to kill for. We see Murphy days before the concert on The Colbert Report, during which Colbert tells him there are three ways for a rocker to end his career: “Overdose, overstay your welcome, or write Spiderman: The Musical.” We see Murphy interviewed at an empty restaurant by writer Chuck Klosterman—a sharp narrative device that provides Murphy copious opportunity for off-screen reflection. (At one point he describes the song “Losing My Edge” as “sad hipster DJ Revolutionary Road.”)
And then we’re there at the show, witnessing a singular band in a singular moment. The concert camera work is fantastic—high-energy stage close-ups; ecstatic crowd shots; an abstract overhead view of the dancing throng; Aziz Ansari crowd surfing. The band is superb, cranking out insistent, tight-but-loose dance music, the kind that only seriously rehearsed, seriously synced musicians can play. People in the movie theater were seat-dancing. Murphy’s stage banter is terse, detached, funny. The actual show was almost four hours long, but only 10 so songs make it into the movie. Each is a thrumming, epic whirlwind. Except the finale, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which is Murphy’s torch song to his muse, getting uptight in her old age. The show ends with a balloon drop and the crowd in tears.
The entire time, onstage and off, Murphy and the band comport themselves stoically, professionally, enthusiastic but hardly overwhelmed with emotion. Their passivity builds tension: Don’t they recognize the magnitude of the moment? Until, towards the end of the film, we see Murphy alone in the band’s gear-filled storage space. He puts his head in his hands and exhales a single, choking sob.
LCD Soundsystem was not a popular band; they couldn’t have sold out MSG were it not their swan-song show. But they came about during a time when distinctions between underground and mainstream were trampled by instant access, and they disco-danced across that muddy line. There is obvious joy in the music, and pathos, and humor—a powerful combination attuned specifically to our age. Murphy’s entire enterprise has always been about mortality, about the impermanence of youth, about the sweet tragedy of trying to hold onto a moment. Which is why, like all great artists, they mean more posthumously than during their lifetime. The irony is that LCD Soundsystem is right now trending on Twitter. Even death can’t kill it.