review... La Dispute's Tiny Dots Documentary
The opening of La Dispute’s new documentary Tiny Dots sees a series of fans and friends speak about the band over establishing shots of travelling, landscapes and La Dispute on stage. The shots are subtle and quite beautiful, but the quotes themselves, which go on for a good few minutes, aren’t exactly revolutionary. They begin well with an old supporter who talks about the bands very early days, but become cliché quickly, for example one fan saying “the kids don’t believe in religion, but they believe in bands”. This brief introduction is a microcosm of the documentary itself; it looks great and it’s not bad, it’s just for long periods it doesn’t offer enough substance. The documentary discusses the bands history from the beginning, featuring interviews with the members’ parents and early footage of the band playing tiny stages. This footage is interesting to see how far the band has come and the parental interviews are a nice touch, but there are also extensive interviews with members and associates that drag on too long. As the band tell their story leading up to the recording of their latest effort, Rooms of the House, the same themes are repeated. It’s difficult to escape the fact that the band seems to be being interviewed about things that they want to be interviewed about rather than really being challenged. I might feel different if I was a massive fan of the band (I know of La Dispute and like them but I’m not a ‘fan’), but from a largely objective stand point it feels a bit like a vanity project.
That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, nor does it not touch on some very interesting subjects, for example the visual connection people feel to music through the band’s iconic logo, or lead singer Jordan Dreyer saying he feels “almost guilty” playing certain old songs because he doesn’t believe the things he did when he wrote them. When they are directly discussing the process of deciding to record the new album things become far more engaging as they talk about growing older in a punk band and the desire to have a ‘normal’ life growing as two members are now married. The home video footage of recording in Bon Iver-like seclusion in ‘The Cabin’, which they describe as “the sixth man in the writing process”, is also endearing, through candid shots of the bands down time, and a glimpse into an intense creative process. One particularly interesting insight is a private blog that all members could post to. We see extracts from novels, artwork, poetry, videos and music as they scroll down the screen, but there isn’t time to take it in. For people who either like the band or punk music enough to watch the documentary, the blog is a fascinating insight into how many varied influences can produce one sonic piece of work, but we aren’t given the chance to engage with it. If less time had been devoted to largely repetitive interviews that vaguely talk about the creative process, and more time given to actually exploring the process in detail, the documentary would be stronger as a whole.
One thing that does set Tiny Dots apart from most music documentaries is the footage of live performances, which span numerous shows on their latest tour and songs from throughout their back catalogue. The production is fantastic on these segments; the sound and video quality is very high, but the camera position and sharp cuts create the feel of a punk band in a small venue. Rather than sweeping shots from the back or below that characterise festival and large venue filming, the cameras are amongst the crowd or between the band on stage, giving a real intimacy to the footage. The interviews with the band discussing touring are again largely nothing new however, although they do admit this, and more time should have been donated to founding member Kevin Whttemore’s decision to leave the band and his final shows on that tour. This is obviously a pivotal moment in both Kevin’s life and the bands career, whilst also being something most touring musicians will one day have to consider, and should have been covered in more depth for longer than the last five to ten minutes. Kevin’s speech to the crowd during his final show is however a fitting climax and an incredibly gripping and poignant moment that serves as the emotional payoff to the documentary.
I feel like I’m being a bit harsh in this review and if the band had marketed Tiny Dots as a tour diary I wouldn’t have been as critical. However Tiny Dots is a feature length documentary and, whilst commendably ambitious as a project, must be viewed as such. There are some really insightful and engaging moments when the band are discussing real events, and the access director Nial Coffey has achieved makes you feel very close to the band in these moments, but far too long is devoted to the vanity interviews that only big La Dispute fans will find interesting for 90 minutes. This won’t be a problem because La Dispute are the kind of band that inspires that devotion in fans, but it’s a shame because there are moments that suggest this could have been a fantastic human interest documentary for anyone who loves music or the creative process, but it too often falls short.