Published Sep 29, 2014Are all great performers assholes, or is being an asshole just the by-product of someone being singularly focused on being a great performer? That's the question inadvertently asked in Jason Miller's The Past is a Grotesque Animal, a seven years in the making documentary that profiles Athens, Georgia-based psych-pop outfit Of Montreal and the band's polarizing frontman/chief-songwriter Kevin Barnes.
A fast and easy rock'n'roll documentary that focuses on the band's ups and downs rather than the creative processes behind each of its performers, Grotesque Animal follows a linear narrative from Of Montreal's inception as a one-man twee-pop band (the Elephant 6-assisted Cherry Peel) to its current incarnation. The results are both pleasing and troubling.
For longtime fans of the group, Miller's personal portrayal of Barnes and co. is a treasure trove of classic VHS footage and pointed asides while on tour. Although light on actual performance footage (save for an extended excerpt from one of their previous live shows in which the band performs the film's title track), Miller makes up for it with candid conversations with the band's frontman, seemingly interchangeable band members (at least as far as Barnes is concerned) and the artists they continue to inspire (Susan Sarandon, MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden, Foxygen and Ariel Pink all make appearances).
Thankfully, Grotesque Animal doesn't hide the monstrous ego housed inside Of Montreal's leader. Scenes of Barnes slagging off former touring musicians runs rampant throughout the film, as do tales of his mental manipulation of all those involved. This is most evident in the film's depiction of the recording process behind the band's latest album, Lousy with Sylvianbriar, a record that found Barnes dismissing the band he had come to know over the years in favour of an entirely new ensemble. Comparisons to Sly Stone and David Bowie are made throughout, but considering the band's spotty track record Barnes comes across a bit more ostentatious and vainglorious than he'd probably like to admit.
As elative and euphoric as watching the band perform live in person, Grotesque Animal is a whirlwind (albeit short) affair that paints a fair portrait of Barnes as a performer and bandleader, but will ultimately leave viewers questioning his intentions at both.