Concert films are tough to talk about from a critical perspective. Most of them are fan-only prospects, offering people who love a band or an artist the opportunity to see them rehearse and perform. The former is the real draw, though there’s a pretty rigid formula in most cases. Too often, these films come off like PR pieces, offering little in the way of insight but a lot in the way of glorification.
Shut Up and Play the Hits seems destined to fall into that trap, focusing as it does on the final concert of a beloved band. What makes it special is that, despite being filled with concert footage and backstage clips, it’s more a character study than anything else. The film is told non-chronologically, beginning with James Murphy waking up the morning after the concert. In following his mundane morning routine, the film refuses to pander to either Murphy or his super-fans, and immediately makes a firm statement about what kind of film this isn’t going to be. You don’t need to know anything about Murphy or LCD Soundsystem to enjoy this film. The first time I saw it, I’d never heard any of their music. I loved what I heard, but even if I hadn’t, the film had plenty to offer. It’s chasing a question that even Murphy doesn’t seem to have the answer to: “Why would you quit?”
Early on, Murphy claims (in an interview with Chuck Klosterman that the film uses as narration throughout) that he wants to have a normal life while he still has the chance. It would’ve been easy for the film not to show anything after the concert, leaving viewers to assume — still high on the excitement of the concert — that the band made the right decision. Instead, the film places a heavy emphasis on the “morning after” scenes, forcing us to reckon with the idea that Murphy may have made a mistake. This willingness to depict a rock star as not just fallible but intensely normal makes Shut Up and Play the Hits much greater than the sum of its parts.
And yeah, the music is great. The concert was over four hours long, so obviously the film can only show a sliver of it, but the handful of songs it includes are all among the band’s best, so the film is a good primer for people who aren’t familiar with them. I actually like the live performance of “North American Scum,” featuring Arcade Fire and a ton of horns, better than the studio version. The grand scale of the event translates into each song. It all feels bigger and better. Earlier this year, the band released the full audio of the concert as The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden. It’s just over three hours long, excising only breaks and some banter, and it’s a must-own if you watch and dig this film.
So who is this film for? Ostensibly, it’s for fans who want to see the band, but it works just as well for people who know nothing about them. James Murphy’s musings about art and his work are interesting on their own, and you don’t need to know who Murphy is to understand what he’s talking about. The film is, much like LCD Soundsystem themselves, impossible to put in a box. Their music is esoteric but not alienating. It’s for no one and everyone, and so is Shut Up and Play the Hits.