The Past is a Grotesque Animal, originally titled Song Dynasties, is the long-awaited documentary about beloved indie band Of Montreal. Director Jason Miller uses old footage from the artists’ pasts combined with new filming that began during the Skeletal Lamping tour. In order to continue and finish this documentary, the band raised almost $100,000 on Kickstarter in late 2012. Some readers will think “of course, it’s Of Montreal” while others will think, “who is that and how did they raise that much money?” As one band member put it, “either you’ve never heard of us or we’re your absolute favorite band.”
Of Montreal is a strange and enthralling band. They make fun dance-able pop-indie tunes that plunge into the dark depths of the human psyche. Some fans love them for the joy, others for being “nihilists with good imaginations” as front man Kevin Barnes describes in the song “Gronlandic Edit”. The strangeness of the band has created a fascinating mystique. This is furthered by their glamorous, high-energy live shows. Elaborate costumes, explosive colors, animal masks, and general absurdity are brought to the stage. During one tour, Barnes would enter the stage riding and stroking a beautiful white horse. Fans of the band who are reading this likely are grinning. Whether you’re familiar or not, everyone wonders the same thing: who are Of Montreal and Kevin Barnes, really?
The Past is a Grotesque Animal is 18 years in the making, promising a behind-the-scenes uncovering of the mystical beast that is Of Montreal. Fans’ extreme desire for this film is unsurprising. What’s odd is that while depicting such an unusual band, this documentary is very ordinary. The film walks through Kevin and the band’s history. It’s done chronologically with talking head interviews. They speak to Kevin’s parents and explore his childhood. The band grows, they open for great bands, and conflicts are had amongst band members. If this is sounding surprisingly traditional, it’s because it is. In fact, it’s even dull.
I have to wonder how it would’ve turned out if someone more prodding, like Errol Morris, interviewed the band. A greater, transcendent truth may have emerged. Or maybe this was just meant to be a plain, deluxe CD or iTunes extra features type of documentary. Regardless of intention, that’s how it plays. The plainness is almost shocking. Still though, there are some revealing and entertaining moments. Near the end, Kevin admits to a particularly unpopular view on the importance of art versus human relationships (no spoilers!). Watching the band perform, especially in their most absurd moments, is a joy.
Of Montreal thrives on their mystique, that elusive unusual quality that reaches into the human part of people that they’re usually not willing to admit to. The plain view of Kevin Barnes and the band presented in this film doesn’t exactly tarnish the mystique, but it doesn’t reveal much or even explore it. As an obsessive fan of the band, it’s hard not to be drawn into interviews with or about Kevin Barnes. If you’re not a fan, The Past is a Grotesque Animal isn’t worth the time. That time would be better spent listening to Of Montreal, the band whose intoxicatingly unique songs are indisputably worth the time investment.
This film plays at the Brattle Theatre staring 6/20 and will be online 6/24.