It isn’t everyday that you can get up close with an artist and feel like you have unfettered access to their most personal thoughts. The proposition of cameras lurking everywhere, be it at home, in the studio and on the road would scare most subjects away. Add to it the somewhat improbable idea of focusing on a relatively unknown artist to be your lead and have them carry it for a few hours would not normally be in a director’s playbook.
Lydia Loveless, the focal point of Gorman Bechard’s documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless?, doesn’t seem fazed by any of it. The film, newly released on DVD and in tandem as part of a limited edition vinyl album for Record Store Day called Lydia Loveless Live From The Documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? does a wonderful job of telling a story of an artist coming into her prime as seen through the lens of a director and fan as he follows her over the course of six months.
The title was inspired by an artist confounding conventions. Described as Patti Smith in one minute, Hank Williams the next and then Neko Case, it all prompted the director to ask, “Well then, who is she?” The film traces the Ohio-born singer’s odyssey from fronting a band as a teenager with her dad on drums, writing her first album at the age of fifteen and watching her development as a bandleader through the making of her breakthrough record Real.
“I don’t know if I’m shy or massively obnoxious,” Loveless says deadpan in one of the opening scenes, hoping that by the end of the film she’ll know. It’s a hint of the self-deprecating humor that will carry the film. Her engaging reflections are juxtaposed with an uncanny ability to throw out thought provoking one-liners. From her home office with the eyes of Lemmy on a poster looking down from above her, she says, “I’d rather be asked what my favorite color M&M is than to be asked one more fucking time what’s it’s like to be a woman in a band with a bunch of dudes.”
The narrative is hardly scripted and the story tells itself with Bechard’s generous attention to Loveless’ journals and notes and her openness to the camera that frame the larger stories the two want to tell. It’s a modern day tale of any band that is trying to make it in a world where selling records is no longer a viable endgame. Travelling countless miles together in a van, the luxury of landing a few hotel rooms is the reward of touring’s new reality.
Along the way, you get to know the four other members of her band and the chemistry that fuels their comic banter and ferocious live performances. Seeing cows along Midwest touring roads inspires a performance “The Cows of North Dakota” that will leave you in stitches. And then there’s the band caught on a cigarette break outside a club waxing philosophical on camel toe. We can now hear the voiceover come Oscar time. “And now our nominee for best comic performance by a rock and roll band…” (A sequence in the extras “The History of the Camel Toe Troubadours” might qualify for best animation.)
When Loveless strums the opening chords of a new song called “Desire,” it’s like getting a sneak preview before she introduces it to her band for the first time. Bechard takes you through the evolution of “Desire” from rehearsal through its studio recording and live performance a few months later at Skully’s Music Hall in Columbus. “Desire” was supposed to be the centerpiece of Real but was left off the album. Now, on Lydia Loveless Live From The Documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless?, it finally has a reference on vinyl after being a digital orphan and missing a second chance on the Boy Crazy and Single(s) collection.
“If you think that I’m so fucking emotionally dead … it’s because I am,” she grinds out in a climactic performance of “More Like Them,” one of the signature live cuts captured on film. In a whirl of exasperation she exorcises the demons for everyone who has lived in a world in which they felt they never fit in. By the time she asks, “Why can’t you be more like them,” it’s as if she’s counseling herself in an alternative approach to primal scream therapy. As she blasts the song’s breakthrough line, it’s like she’s waving a victory flag of liberation.
It’s the generous extras that make the documentary even more illuminating. In one segment, the camera captures Loveless strumming “Desire” alone on the floor with her acoustic guitar. As she picks out the chords, you feel the rawness of emotion in the embryonic song.
In another she and Bechard come back to provide commentary as they watch the film together after some time has passed. It’s like eavesdropping on a barroom conversation. Loveless gives you insights into the writing “Desire” and some of the factors why it didn’t make the album. Guitarist Todd May, the collaborator who helped take her music where she wanted to go, gestures with his hands to make a point. It evolves into laughter when she reveals he chickened out of doing it in a bubble bath. When it comes to seeing the sequence about bassist Ben Lamb, Loveless’ voice suddenly breaks and she says it’s hard to watch. We learn the couple has divorced.
It’s like watching old home movies and seeing yourself as you once were. There she is scaling the heights of the band’s stage equipment during “Boy Crazy,” only to accidentally fall, cutting open her leg and as she describes it in the extra commentary, putting May’s amp into her uterus. It’s like an old war wound, battle scars scars from the rock and roll frontlines captured for posterity. In between all the miles logged, there’s more than a few tender and funny moments for a story that is still evolving. Lydia Loveless, this is your life.
During Who Is Lydia Loveless?, you get to ride shotgun.