The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are but a couple bands probed about their start in the Big Apple in this new music documentary from Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern.
Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace are two documentarians who first broke into the independent film scene with Shut Up And Play The Hits, a 2012 documentary that follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy before, during and after his iconic band’s final concert before retirement at Madison Square Garden on April 2nd, 2011. The two filmmakers reunited with Murphy and several musicians to tell their story and that of many alternative bands in Meet Me in the Bathroom, a music documentary about New York City’s underground rock scene from 1999 to the mid-2000s, the period in which bands like Interpol, The Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs started their careers in music before breaking into the mainstream, and their stories from this time period are beautifully told in what’s essentially a nostalgic celebration of New York City, and a wistful chronicle of what its music scene used to be.
The documentary chronicles each musician’s humble beginnings predominantly through archival footage of old concerts between intimate moments that see musicians like Adam Green and Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches practicing a song they wrote to themselves, perusing the streets of the Big Apple for any venue in which they could listen to music, until they are recommended to play at The Sidewalk Cafe.
There, the band would not only meet Julian Casablancas and his fellow Strokes members, but also learn Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was living across the street from the same venue. Meanwhile, Paul Banks is in Brooklyn trying to get Interpol off the ground, all the while James Murphy of what would become LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records is seeing the music scene around him come to life, and wants to be a part of it. But little do they know that all of their lives would change as would the city around them on and after the tragic day of the 9/11 attacks.
It’s that particular topic where Meet Me in the Bathroom elicits the most power from its interview subjects. Even though they’re entirely covered by the massive amount of archival footage Lovelace and Southern have acquired, their overwhelming feelings of emotion come through when Nick Zinner’s voice breaks when he recalls his and Karen’s opportunity to play a parking lot concert for Brooklyn’s music community. The musicians’ quiet despair also comes through in the footage itself, such as when Karen O is seen surrounded in her blank apartment struggling to process her grief while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer describes her emotions for the viewers with honest and stark recollection in her interview.
The genius of Meet Me in the Bathroom comes through Lovelace and Southern’s expertise in storytelling. Throughout the film, audience members feel like they’re watching all this assembled footage of concerts and their favorite musician’s lives around their performances with the subjects being interviewed, evoking feelings of nostalgia. An example of this comes right at the start of the film where a montage of highways and wheat fields seemingly shot from the backseat of a moving car plays up until the bright streets of New York City takes shape while a voiceover recites Walt Whitman’s poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun”. It is full of wistful reflection tinged by a longing to return to the past through the minimalist, delicate score and b-roll of NYC’s vibrant, exciting nightlife that accentuates the magic of playing music there.
Lovelace and Southern also prove themselves to be expert documentarians through the variety of stories they’ve curated about each band in Meet Me in the Bathroom. Each act’s rise through the ranks feels different from one another to the point where each story beat feels fresh from the movie’s start to finish, from The Strokes’ meteoric rise into superstardom and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs making history as the first rock band with an Asian female vocalist to Interpol’s bleak journey full of proverbial bumps in the road, and even LCD Soundsystem’s arrival in the rock scene as a father figure to bands on the rise at the time like The Rapture.
The film’s editing also does a good job of complementing the material Lovelace and Southern receive from their interviews. For instance, black and white footage of Interpol playing their melancholy song “Leif Erickson” underscores Paul Banks’ revealing story about a doomed UK tour that sees his band play a concert which only saw five attendants, all of them asking his bandmates if they knew who The Strokes were, conveying the uncertainty that plagued the band upon seeing the consequences of their decision.
If there are any complaints to be had with Meet Me in the Bathroom, it’s that some of the bites are cut together so tight that it’s easy to tell if a statement is clearly edited. Credit to Lovelace and Southern for doing what they have to in order to tell the story they intended to make, it’s just an element that gets distracting every so often. It’s also worth noting that the opportunities for a perspective about the African American experience in this scene are there with the brief addition of TV On The Radio, but their appearances are sadly few and far between each other.
But what’s there is still emotionally investing from beginning to end, and Meet Me In The Bathroom is an informative look at how New York City became a new haven for the rock stars of today at the turn of the new millennium. Die-hard fans of the subjects will learn more about how their favorite musicians got their start and what their personal experiences were like as life in the Big Apple changed drastically after 9/11, and casual audiences will rock out to the film’s incredible music and long to experience New York’s music scene for themselves. Music is a universal language that everyone understands, and that’s why there’s something for everyone to enjoy and learn from Meet Me in the Bathroom.