Early on in the film that follows 20 years of Of Montreal’s morphed incarnations, a former member of the band says that this is either the band you’ve never heard of or your absolute favorite of all time. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve seen an Outback Steakhouse commercial and ever since that song wedged itself in your head (“Let’s go Outback tonight/ Life will still be there tomorrow!”), you’ve wondered if a giant bloomin’ onion might be the answer.
The rock doc The Past Is a Grotesque Animal proves, at the least, that Of Montreal’s turn at ad jingling adds up to one minor, forgettable costume change by glam artiste Kevin Barnes. Barnes is technically the frontman, but more accurately, he is the sun and the band’s interchangeable planets rotate in his light. “Kevin is a weirdo. And it all starts with Kevin,” says guitarist Bryan Poole about five minutes into what ends up being a 77-minute excavation of Barnes’ creative process intermixed with concert footage.
For fans, there’s a lot to like here, with all the backstory on how and why the band’s sound and vibe have changed over the years. But I gotta be honest: That part is boooooring. The film sort of gets that and tries to make a more general appeal to plain-old lovers of weird.
Exhibit A: Susan Sarandon in a JCPenney-ish blue blazer talking about getting on stage with a ruler and sitting on Kevin Barnes to spank someone in a naked pig costume. Exhibit B: Kevin Barnes pantsless with his parts jangling about while concertgoers get all up in there with their phone cams. Exhibit C: Kevin Barnes in a “suicide room” on stage pretending to hang himself. Exhibit D: Kevin Barnes atop a massive live horse during a show, an idea he attributes to Prince.
Because Barnes’ concert persona is all about exhibition, there’s a hot ton of footage of him and “the band” going for it while fans famous (Solange Knowles, Janelle Monae, dudes in other hip bands) and not-famous lap it up. During the most theatrical of their famously theatrical tours, the one promoting 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, Barnes and co. out-do-times-1,000 whatever version you can conjure of Little Shop of Horrors. So much androgyny! So many props! The budget for shaving cream alone was $2,000.
Barnes’ ex-wife Nina, probably the most traditionally likable person in the doc, sums it up well: “It was like a dream of his to have so many people who could do the things that he wanted.”
Barnes says in the movie that tour was the highlight of his music career so far. It’s also the best part of this movie, a classic example of the rock-doc standard in the way it mixes character and concert, footage and interviews.
Where this one goes shaky is in the timing. It’s paced along a strict chronology that starts to feel like a walk on a beach. Yep, there’s another footprint. Yep, there’s the ocean. Oh look, a seagull! Pleasant enough, but movies, even vanity ones paid for by a Kickstarter campaign, need an arc. This one starts to feel like it might have one with the exploration of Barnes’ relationship to Nina and the birth of their child, which sent them both into different sorts of tailspins. But then that goes away, only to re-emerge when the movie needs to end on a message. That message according to Barnes: A commitment to art above humans “doesn’t hurt anyone,” you see, “except for those close to you.” Cue the credits.
A tighter, more structured edit could have made better use of that theme, which does deserve its moment in the gloaming. It could also help The Past is a Grotesque Animal appeal to those who aren’t just lovers of the band, lovers of weird or lovers of giant, fried onions.
But does any of that matter? Only if Kevin Barnes wants it to.
The Past is a Grotesque Animal screens at the Roxy Fri., July 18–Sun., July 20, at 7 and 9 PM nightly.