Rock Martyrs

New Radiohead documentary reveals the insecurities of superstardom

Poor Thom Yorke.

In his rumpled black sweater and baggy khakis, Radiohead lead singer/songwriter Yorke plows through interview after interview on this video with his head slumped in his right hand, constantly looking for a way out. With his duckling smirk and perpetual five o'clock shadow, Yorke visually deflates the flashy rock-star persona. He's an artist, dammit! He'd rather be on stage, playing a tune to a grateful audience, or in the studio, tweaking and polishing a song to his liking. ("Brilliant! It's fuckin' brilliant!") But, alas, Yorke and his art-rock band must endure an insufferable, never-ending journey to decipher verbally and visually the method to the band's madness. To Yorke, it's a road paved with rusty nails.

In the new video documentary Meeting People Is Easy, you may never see another musical performer who wears his agony on his wool-knitted sleeve quite like Yorke. While the rest of the band mingles at an after-party, he's still pacing in the dressing room. When he does attend an after-party, he gets turned away at the door and taunted by bouncers ("Radiohead! Creep! Dickhead!"). On the video shoot for the single "No Surprises," his head gets encased in a glass bowl as it is constantly filled with water. With each time the water flushes out and he gasps for air, Yorke looks as though he's one earful of wa-wa away from the breaking point. The film, which is in your neighborhood video store and is currently touring art-house theaters (and will be stopping at Houston's Angelika Film Center this August), follows the band on a world tour in the wake of its critically lauded 1997 album, OK Computer. While most rockumentaries chronicle a band and the personal adrenal kick that comes with creating music — like the pleasant, recently released pseudo-documentary Buena Vista Social ClubMeeting People Is Easy documents a band as it creates music and ends up having to explain how it does it. Just in case you missed it the first 200 times.

No one else in Radiohead seems to matter in this video but the lead singer, center-stage personality Thom Yorke.
No one else in Radiohead seems to matter in this video but the lead singer, center-stage personality Thom Yorke.

Meeting People Is Easy tells less about Radiohead, the band, and more about Radiohead, the plight. It tells how a band gets tagged as the Big Thing and then has to spend a year of its life telling everyone (and I do mean everyone) what makes it so worthy. The film essentially lays down the cons of being a rock star. Apart from Yorke, you barely figure out who the other members of the band are. And, to them, they would much prefer it that way.

Unlike other fame-struck rock bands, Yorke and his Brit crew are unfazed by the concept of celebrity. As Yorke tells a reporter: "There's an automatic assumption that any degree of success automatically brings with it [the fact that] you've cheated in some way, or you're full of shit."

The band goes through an onslaught of journalists, radio DJs, talk-show hosts and other media folk. While some of them are condescending (e.g., one Kathie Lee-ish chat-show host calls the band's songs "music to slit your wrist to"), some are plainly starstruck (e.g., a female Japanese scribe gets visibly nervous while talking to a band member).

Midway through, Meeting People becomes an unintentional on-point attack on the music biz as well as a documentary and concert playback. In interviews, Yorke and his men take on critics, record-label hype and American modern-rock radio, which Yorke compares to "a fridge buzzing." The boys struggle with their sanity as they attend incessant photo sessions, accept meaningless (to them) awards and get grilled about which celebrities are coming to a show. ("I had a great conversation with Calvin Klein about underwear," Yorke gibes.) But for every negative the boys encounter, there is an unexpected positive, like the sight of two Japanese girls joyously crying at the sight of the guys, or when Yorke rides in a New York cab after a performance on David Letterman. As the camera catches blurry headlights and a couple making out near an ATM, Yorke muses about, probably, the one good thing about being in a popular band. "The freakiest thing about all of this," he says, "is the idea that you would be one of those bands to somebody."

Needless to say, the dismal monotony of success begins to reach its intolerable peak. "I'm really, really worried," Yorke tells his bandmates halfway though the tour. "We've been running too long on bravado, believing how wonderful everyone tells us we are. It's just a head-fuck. It's a complete head-fuck, isn't it?" But instead of tantrum-throwing or ego-tripping, they allow performing live to be their emotional outlet. They manage to get back why they got in this business when they get a crowd of 10,000 Philadelphia fans to enthusiastically sing "Creep" with them, or when they perform a new song at New York City's Radio City Music Hall in the film's triumphant, thank-God-it's-over finale.

Director Grant Gee, who directed the "No Surprises" video, manages to match the band's moody imagination and surreal bleakness with each frame. He shows the whizzing flurry and bland lulls (with head-snapping editing work from Jerry Chater), which come with the ups and downs of touring. It's hard not to feel a tad bit cynical toward Radiohead and its dilemma. But fortunately the band doesn't whine to the point of complete, shallow alienation. These boys are tortured artists. They pay the ultimate price for being a distinctive band. In the end, the low-profile men of Radiohead learn that meeting people is easy, but it's accepting and enjoying their company that's the bitch of it.

Meeting People Is Easy will be shown at the Angelika Film Center, 510 Texas, on Friday, August 6, and Saturday, August 7, at midnight. Call (713)225-5232.Meeting People Is Easy documents a band as it creates music and ends up having to explainhow it does it.

 
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