A music journalist, it’s taken as said that writing in the first person is a fracture of protocol, a flaunting of the rules. Definitely frowned upon. But then sometimes circumstance dictates that playing straight isn’t the appropriate action. To the average cinemagoer, indeed to the average electronic music fan, a ninety-minute film of a concert where the artists are mostly encased in stacks of equipment while visuals flash across gargantuan screens behind them, wouldn’t raise anything more than standard levels of interest. By definition, films of gigs are hard to get spot on, and even when they hit the sweet spot, most of them involve regulation bands with drummers, guitars, singers – think The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense – so the task is hard. Viewing the Chemical Brothers’ full-length concert feature Don’t Think at the BFI lthis week though, was a cinema experience I have never before witnessed and most likely will never again (even if I go and see it again next week, which I might). And it’s clear that its success, its power and its sheer visceral majesty relies on breaking many of the rules, however subtly, that any standard electronic music film would perceive it needed to adheer to. But then the story behind the film itself and how it was made is already a large pointer to why it would be a different prospect.
Directed by Adam Smith, whose journey as a collaborator and friend of Tom Rowland and Ed Simons started almost twenty years ago when he was “travelling round in an ice cream van” with them making visuals for their early gigs, it’s far more than a simple sensory overload, though that’s the first impression that anyone watching the film will undoubtedly have. Shot mostly chronologically during a performance at last year’s Japan’s Fuji Rocks festival, one of the pairing’s favourite destinations, it subverts the standard model of ‘point-and-shoot the artists and listen to the music’ that many decent, but ultimately limited previous works have taken. Even in terms of the Chemical Brothers’ vaunted combination of sound and visuals, an hour and a half of static shots would’ve stretched the attention when the viewer is sat at home instead of in the thick of it.
Instead, into the mix comes fans faces, close ups of Simons and Rowland’s button-pushing and euphoric high-fiving antics (something that they, until the film was made, were unaware the crowd never saw, being mere silhouettes in front of the visual spectacle), trips out to bars & food stands, into the mud, trees, and even in one fan’s case, almost a film within a film as they follow Japanese girl Maryo as she dances, stares open-mouthed and even wanders during the Chemicals’ set, giving the viewer a fans-eye-view of proceedings instead of a cameraman’s fixed perspective. Maybe on the face of it, nothing too out of the ordinary, but its the clever way in which the experience is sewn together, its jumpy edits, flashing, sometimes unfocused visuals, its centering on the enraptured (and mostly oblivious) faces in the crowd, the off-kilter camera angles, that bring it as close as any film you’ll ever see to being stood in the middle of the sweaty, seething mass on that night. Five minutes in you have to pinch yourself to remember you’re sat in the comfort of a cinema seat rather than jumping around like a lunatic in the middle of thousands of people.
Making that bold statement, I should be able to back it up. As it happens, I’ve seen the Chemical Brothers six times myself. From the first experience in a blocked-out tent at Gatecrasher’s summer sound system via Sonar in Barcelona, Trafalgar Square, Camden’s Roundhouse, they’re a band that have never left anything in the dressing room when it comes to hitting the audience with a tidal wave of music and visuals. And rarely, in terms of electronic music let alone any genre, they’ve remained hugely popular and inventive, even twenty years since their first incarnation as the Dust Brothers. There are few acts around that are still as relevant and loved two decades on.
Taking the best from acid house, and crossing through big beat, techno and ambient, while picking up a host of collaborators from Beth Orton, Bernard Sumner, Noel Gallagher, Wayne Coyne and Richard Ashcroft to Kele Okereke and Q-Tip, they seem to be able to find the right blend of their own magic formula to be able to fill arenas when many of their early contemporaries are retired. But it’s live that their music arguably goes to another plane altogether. Over the years, as their shows have grasped technology with increasingly mind-bending results, they’ve realised better than anyone else the intrinsic link between their sound and vision, and for people like me, that have been lucky enough to see them on more than one occasion, each song’s visual narrative becomes as much part of the experience as the familiar melodies. Adam Smith has been central to this design, and so by directing the film he closes the loop; Don’t Think finally distills the disparate parts into something that captures their live experience in its glorious whole.
Watching it is an unsettling experience in some ways. But far from negative, being introduced to the sensation of hairs standing up on the back of the neck as the first kick drum of Another World drops, finding myself first cheering, then clapping, and then laughing out loud as the wave of sound reverberates across the BFI’s cinema screen. So much here is familiar, which is part of the joy – as for any electronic music fan in their thirties it’s almost impossible not to know at least a handful of their anthems, and for me, their albums are second nature – with not just nerve-endings tingling as each track hits, but the visuals pricking up memories. The clown, growling “you’re all my children now”, and its startling effect on the crowd, their faces ranging from joy to terror, is just one of the many examples of how the film steps out of the ordinary, and gives the viewer the feeling of immersion in the whole spectacle. One moment you’re nodding as the camera shakes in the middle of the pit, the next you’re watching Rowlands grin as he hits a key marked ‘HBHG’, your brain making the connection milliseconds after Hey Boy Hey Girl’s rasping note chimes in, and the next you’re following members of the crowd out to the bar, before you’re back in the throng, with close-ups of faces crossing the spectrum from amazement to ecstasy through to delirium. With the crisp editing never letting you settle, it’s impossible to get into a comfort zone, and as the scenes chop and change, your attention continues to be grasped.
Looking around as the film progressed, it seemed to be affecting the whole room in the same way. Half way through the cheers had given way to a small group that had caved in to their instincts and started dancing at the front of the cinema, a pattern that’d continue until a standing ovation at the end. If I wasn’t still on the receiving end of a stinking cold, I’d have probably joined them, but whether you were sat down or throwing shapes it was a communal experience of the like I’d never found in the confines of the silver screen. A cursory search online the next day showed that it wasn’t confined to London, with people as far afield as Melbourne, Japan and the USA posting tales of dancing in the aisles. Many times – after Horse Power’s galloping visuals had disappeared, or when the film’s title track’s red letters flare up, or Hey Boy Hey Girl’s red and green dancer flies across the screen – it takes a second for the senses to return and to realise you’re not in a rain-soaked field in Japan, such is the effect of watching in wide angle majesty. One could only imagine what Tom and Ed, sat at the front with Smith, would’ve made of it. Judging by their smiles afterwards, they enjoyed it as much as the rest of us.
So, if you have the chance, go and see Don’t Think at the cinema. Even a widescreen tv won’t do it full justice – though part of me can’t wait to the DVD release to see what extras are included – when the music needs to be respectfully loud, and the visuals lightning-bright. As a spectacle it’s astonishing, and for an electronic music fan it’s essential. Chemical Brothers fans will be in even greater thrall, as the craft of Adam Smith makes it as much a love letter to his friends’ music as a cinematic experience for their fans. The only downside of the evening is one that everyone must have when the leave: I wish I’d been there. This is the next best thing, and only millimetres away from the real thing.