To this point, the Beastie Boys’ concert movie Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! has screened in only a handful of places: at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals and, last week, at multiplexes across the country during one-time-only whoop-dee-doo screenings in conjunction with Big Screen Concerts. The latter is a relatively new endeavor that’s attempting to turn screening rooms into concert halls, a quaint throwback to the long-ago days when AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock toured theaters and made it possible for us wee lads to attend a mock rock show when our parents wouldn’t think of letting us go to the real deal, lest we wind up next to the dopers and gropers. When Let There Be Rock was making its four-wall foray in 1980, sweet mock concert-Ts were sold by the concession stand. And I will forever swear there was some dude smoking a jay in the back row, tokin’ up in honor of Bon Scott’s last stand.
But the Beasties’ offering doesn’t attempt to replace (or even replicate) the concert-going experience any more than a strobe light makes a good replacement for a flashlight when the power goes out. It’s a spastic mess shot by 50 Beasties fans at the band’s Madison Square Garden show on Oct. 9, 2004, and edited by Adam “MCA” Yauch, who, apparently and rather surprisingly, didn’t go blind or crazy during the process. After you see it in a theater, the outside world will seem surprisingly slowed down, almost static; it took a good five minutes before I was even able to drive home in a straight line, so chaotic and fleeting are the images in a movie made by amateurs and assembled by an auteur with the attention span of a 1-year-old. If Yauch and his longtime partners in rhyme Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad Rock” Horowitz don’t exactly reinvent the medium, they show a remarkable lack of respect for it. Jonathan Demme would not approve.
There’s no getting around the obvious: There’s something wholly distancing and distracting about Awesome, in which no shot lasts more than a couple of seconds and most clock in at the blink of an eye. You’re never quite allowed into the movie or onto the stage or even into the audience, the point of most concert movies. You’re constantly reminded that this is an experiment and an experience — something both artsy and fartsy, as Sarah Silverman might say. Hence, not only do you get some 90 minutes of concert footage and the more-than-occasional woo-hoo audience cutaway, but also the first-person shot of a guy schlepping into the men’s room to take a piss. There’s even a quick flash of Ben Stiller proving that he, like every real Beasties fan, digs Paul’s Boutique.
Awesome, which was originally intended as a home-video release and is receiving only a limited theatrical run, is just the opposite of Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, currently singing an audience to sleep in an art house near you. Demme has no interest in the audience at all; the crowd isn’t even shown in his movie, except by accident. He’s focused on the performer and the performance. (Neil Young might as well come with a lyric sheet.) But the Beasties — whose set list relies mostly on material from its most recent release, To the 5 Boroughs, to the delight of the hometown crowd — seem to enjoy pushing the limits and testing our patience. Much of the movie’s got that digital blur to it; it’s pixilated from almost start to finish, and we breathe a sigh of relief when one of the professional cameramen acting as backup fixes his in-focus lens on Horowitz for an extended period of time (and by “extended period” I mean, like, two seconds).
Yet the best part of the film comes at its midway point, when it takes a breather for some extended jazz-funk workouts from Ill Communication and Check Your Head. Decked out in baby-blue Bar Mitzvah tuxes circa ’72, the Boys grab some instruments and an honest-to-God band (including Money Mark behind the keyboards, bless his buoyancy) and ride a groove till they wash up on the Jersey shore, ready to bounce the house for a good 30 minutes more. Toward the end, though, the movie seems to tire of itself. “Body Movin'” is one long black-and-white negative, run through the kind of filter you can’t wait to use the first time you install video software on your new computer.
But without its gimmicks the movie might have been too ordinary. Watching three guys in green-and-yellow sweat suits bounce around a stage for an hour and a half is as antiquated as the wax cylinder, after all. The point is to disorient and delight, to discombobulate and dazzle — to manufacture a high for those who forgot to bring their stashes to the theater. And Awesome does, to its credit, gather momentum and build to a frenzied climax. By the time Horowitz introduces “Sabotage” by dedicating it to George W. Bush, the bystander’s grimace has long since turned into a grin of appreciation and — what else? — affection.