Usually I don't post here, but last night I was lucky enough to see 'If All Goes Wrong' in Gent. It was only the documentary, but since the DVD isn't actually available yet, and because it was so good, I thought I should try to write something of a review.
Actually, even from watching just the documentary, it’s clear that the DVD package is going to be pretty special. The main reason is because the director, Jack Gulick, and the rest of the camerapersons understood what is special about the Smashing Pumpkins and their music. For instance, in the clip of Superchrist they chose to use, they have a brilliant shot of Jimmy going ballistic (unlike in the AOL Sessions); they don’t focus on lifestyle but on motivation; they ask Billy about Soma instead of asking him to play Today or Bullet with Butterfly Wings. There are mentions made of the earlier music, but Gulick doesn’t go to any effort to focus on it or explain it. Instead, he concentrates on the music that is current and does himself a lot of credit by doing so. Most importantly though, Gulick focuses on the music as art, instead of focusing on the band as celebrities, which makes a strong departure from Vieuphoria and most other music documentaries. Watching Billy and the band go through the creative process, the psychological ups and downs and the differing levels of motivation might not sound like the most interesting viewing ever, but Gulick brings it all together well.
The documentary is based around the two residencies. From the moment Billy arrives in Ashville, he’s hit by inspiration and lyrics start spurting out from everywhere. Gulick doesn’t set out to disprove the Billy = Super Ego reputation, but he does show us Billy at work: First thing in the morning, he wakes up and starts writing music and actually takes hold of all the little pieces of inspiration which hit him. One of the best examples is when he is waiting for someone, sits down at an old piano to pass the time, and all of a sudden, creates The Rose March. Billy thinks he’ll forget it and asks the cameraperson to film it so he’ll have a record of it, as otherwise, it would have been lost. We see the other side of this when Billy tells off his personal assistant for accidentally annoying him by talking too loudly in the next room. It demonstrates a side of Billy more alike the tyrannical control-freak ogre the media makes him out to be, but it is also understandable: If his concentration is broken, the song could easily be lost. The Billy in the documentary is devoutly musical and is obviously admired for it by the people around him and the rebuke he gives is somewhat normal in this context.
One of the weaknesses in the documentary is that despite the concentration on Billy’s creative process, the development of the songs over the residencies isn’t shown; they are debuted, but then we don’t see much more of what happened in the next days, which somewhat suggests Billy hit perfection at once, although of course he didn’t. (The DVD has extra footage in the extras which might include this.) Ironically, Billy complains that people coming to concerts only want to see the band, or any band, at their peak and Gulick has, to some extent, shown exactly the same thing, although this is only in terms of Billy’s songwriting. There are other failures which are clearly shown.
Of these, the most prominent is the first night of the residency in San Francisco. This is one point where Gulick really shines through. In order to spell out the failure, he shows the set-list, which any devout Smashing Pumpkins fan would be blown away by and uses this to explain the situation instead of resorting to interviews or anything else. The audience failed to respond and the band is obviously confused, surprised and annoyed by it when they reconvene before the encore. Billy’s solution is to return to the stage and play Gossamer for something like 30 minutes, which also fails to inspire the audience. Gulick makes it look as though Billy’s only recourse or means of bringing inspiration is through music. At a few of the concerts around the time of the residencies, there were complaints on various forums about Billy not speaking to the audience at all, which does leave things a bit impersonal, especially in the situation of a residency where the audience might expect a something more personal. Due to the nature of the documentary, it’s not clear whether Billy made any efforts to actually speak to them at all, although he clearly does at other performances, and it may have been interesting if this side of things was commented on.
In San Francisco the next day, there is media backlash about the concert. Strangely, the newspaper specifies the three-hour length and uses it against the band, although in reality, there aren’t too many bands playing three-hour sets! There’s footage of Billy and Jimmy conferencing and wondering what to do to rectify the problem for the next night, and again the solution they come up with is musical, although this time it works, and is presented extremely well by Gulick. He cuts to the night of the concert and a few words appear on the screen: Superchrist – Debut Performance. For Pumpkins fans, the power of Superchrist doesn’t need to be explained, and Gulick doesn’t go to any length to explain it. Sure, there’s footage of the band blasting through the song. It’s all that needs to be shown and all Gulick shows. It demonstrates that Billy has found a solution to the problem rather than lying down and hiding.
Gulick shows Billy writing the set-lists immediately before the performance and his continually writing music. It demonstrates how the band comes together and learns songs on the day of performance, and nails them. There are interviews with well-respected musicians who are astounded by the Smashing Pumpkins and their originality. However, there is no positive media shown about the band, and, as Pumpkins fans know, there is all too little positive media. This is something the documentary delves into: Billy mentions at one point that there was an expectation the Smashing Pumpkins would be terrible before anyone had even heard the new music. (On the other hand, the media applauds and celebrates musicians who have none of this drive or originality and whose music has nothing to do with art. Think of the magazine articles about Fergie or Christina Aguilera: ‘I love to play with my sexuality.’ How is this related to music?) The commitment to creation which Billy shows is basically ignored by the media, and although the documentary touches on the blackballing, it doesn’t delve into it as deeply as perhaps it could or should, especially since it relates it to Billy’s creativity: The worse things are, the more creative he becomes.
Gulick mentioned that all the music is on the DVD genuinely; what you see is what you get, and not copies from a clearer or better recording at a later point. This adds to the authenticity fans expect from the Smashing Pumpkins and removes the propagandistic elements that are rife in most musical documentaries. The filming of the concerts is first class. There aren’t any especially unique shots or perspectives (keeping in mind that this is just the documentary), but it is extremely well edited and brings out the strengths of the band, and, in particular, of Billy’s and Jimmy’s playing. As the only official recording (thus far) of many of the songs written at the residencies, Gulick appears to have risen to the occasion and it’s easy to feel comfortable that the recordings were in good hands.
If you can, get out and see it. It's worth the effort!