A week and a half ago, German lunatic/genius film director Werner Herzog filmed a Killers’ concert in the American Express-funded “Unstaged” series. Preceding it, he filmed a six-minute mini documentary about the band and their roots. That sponsored web-content follows previous entries, in which a fairly popular band is paired with a respected auteur in sorta random, Secret Santa fashion. You could argue that Terry Gilliam’s apocalyptic whimsy matched pretty well with Arcade Fire, or that Gary Oldman’s grim-faced dedication to craft made him a kindred spirit to Jack White. But how to explain German alien Werner Herzog on a dream-date with self-considered “makers of very important American rock music” The Killers? Was he, as with Grizzly Man, there to document the dangerous delusions of a man dealing with a force beyond his ability to control? (I guess that would be Brandon Flowers trying to claim the Springsteen everyman mantle? Which wants to eat him?) Was he the only director inexplicable enough to be excited about the Killers in 2012???
The previous Unstaged broadcasts have been notable as live web events more than lasting documents, all about the thrill of being there, even over a laptop screen. Lingering chatter post-broadcast has been pretty non-existent. But I’ve been thinking about this Killers/Herzog thing for a week and a half! In blog posting terms, that’s like graduate thesis study! So, I’m sorry, but we are going to have to break this thing down at length…
– The thing about the six-minute “documentary” that preceded the concert is, it’s kind of impossible to suss out anybody’s tone or intentions. You get the feeling that Herzog has sort of a deep, dry ironic well that he’s drawing from, and that the band is trying hard to give him some meaty material to ruminate on. The whole thing is so tonally mismatched that you really cannot tell if anyone is joking about anything. The solemn piano chorale that plays underneath it from the start makes it seem like any minute a title card will pop up that says: “All members of The Killers were found murdered one week later. Their killer is still at large.”
– In the back of a convertible, The Killers wax poignant about their beginnings as a band. Get this, they started in bars! Herzog, desperate for some intrigue, jumps on Brandon Flowers’ note that bassist Mark Stoermer was initially intimidating to him. Turns out he was tall. (Also, he has a real creep-face.) They also talk about living just 5 minutes from the strip, which, I dunno, seems like a waking nightmare for anyone with any options whatsoever?
– Just as they are done talking about the magic that only happens when the four band members are together, text ominously pops up reading, “On the days of this filming Dave Keuning (guitar) was not to be found.” The murder theory, validated! So, where was he, and why didn’t he have time for Werner Herzog? Why be so mysterious about it? This, I suppose, is the reason you get Herzog to direct your Killers-related content. There has to be a some source of intrigue, and Keuning’s dental appointment is not going to cut it.
– The real story of this is not some magical collusion between likeminded artists in differing disciplines. It’s the anxious flop-sweat you feel in anyone trying to make The Killers interesting. It actually makes much more sense than initially thought. They needed Herzog on this. Witness, at 2:32 as he diverts his attention from the band in the front seat to linger on his own loafer, propped up against the southwestern landscape. Is this a metaphor?
– The Killers take him to a beloved spot, which turns out to be one of those chinzy roadside prospector town attractions that litter the western highways, and have slogans like, “How the West Was Fun“. Herzog, looking for meaning in the void as always, asks them about its artiface, and asks if it really a stand-in for the neon fakeness of Vegas itself. He asks if nature ever threatens to impede upon the strip’s false reality, if they’ve ever “seen a big horn sheep at Ceasar’s Palace?” The answer to both is…no. Brandon Flowers explains how Vegas is really exciting if you don’t focus on the crushing sadness.
– These guys are the blandest dudes that have ever lived, and they are saying nothing. It’s hypnotic. “…anyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to organized crime. I guess in a way I feel like we are part of the next wave.”
– At 5:30, when the somber piano comes back and they pose, joylessly, in cardboard prairie cutouts, the tone is again maddening to decipher. Through straight faces they seem to think this is a cute/funny idea? But the way its shot, the important music, it seems like some weird metaphor for the crumbling of the American Dream. A Herzog voiceover is needed, badly. “Sticking their no-longer young faces through the images of their ancestors, the band embodies a painful longing for the simple pleasures and pains contained in our unkempt dreams of the west.”
– It ends, with what Flowers must have considered a cute gag, pretending that an animatronic cowboy crooner is their new guitarist, replacing Keuning as he is presumably off being eaten by buzzards. And this is the whole thing in a nutshell, Flowers squirms, frozen at something just under a smirk, trying to hope that his locale is weird enough or cool enough for Werner Herzog. And Herzog just stares at him, well past the point where it would just be flatly jokey. You are filled with unexpected ennui, knowing that no matter how freakishly handsome Brandon Flowers is, he too will one day die. FIN.
– The broadcast itself, the concert at New York’s gorgeous looking Paradise Theater, is undoubtedly the least interesting part of any of this. (Did they play “Mr. Brightside”??? Yes. And Flowers’ took a big gulping breath after every line.) But, there was still more blandness-disguised-as-weirdness-to-the-point-of-becoming-weird-again to be had…
– OH, we rented a bald eagle, no big deal, he likes crowds and loud noises. WHAT? “This is my favorite bird. He is the bird of the band.” Guys, the eagle is already the bird of the band The Eagles.
– That bird will eat his beautiful face.
– Do you think Werner Herzog rented the eagle at the same place he got the baby sloth and the howler monkeys for Aguirre, the Wrath of God???
– Then, at 1:30, we get to maybe my favorite part, which is just the painfully awkward backstage banter between the band and Herzog, while they do vocal warm ups and earnestly strum some Bad Company.
– “Yeah.” Sigh. Shuffle. “How much time do we have?” Oooookay. Feel the natural affinity between these people. Feeeeeeel it.
– “I have no advice for you. Rahzzle them. Dahzzle them. Rahzzle-dahzzle them. Because, there are many people out there.”
Biggest tragedy: At no point does Werner Herzog gravely intone, “Their musik searches for zee answer to one of life’s most unknowable questions—Are vee human, or are vee dancer?”