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Meeting People Is Easy captured how much it sucks to be Radiohead

Screenshot: Meeting People Is Easy
Screenshot: Meeting People Is Easy

However much you might hate Radiohead, nobody hated Radiohead as much as the band hated itself during the shooting of Grant Gee’s 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy. And however much you love, or hate, or even feel indifferent toward the group, it has very little to do with Gee’s film, in which Radiohead’s actual music—quite poignantly—becomes almost entirely beside the point, an afterthought to all the promotional demands that making successful art creates and, ultimately, something that takes on a burdensome and disparate life of its own. Nearly 20 years later, Meeting People Is Easy is still the best document of the band’s uniquely uncomfortable stardom. It may even be the best movie ever made about how shitty it is to be famous.

If your initial response to that is “Oh, boo hoo,” then the members of Radiohead would likely agree with you. Throughout Gee’s film, which takes place during the exhausting year it spent promoting 1997’s OK Computer, the band is careful to avoid indulging in self-pity, already aware of its reputation as a maudlin group responsible for—as one British TV presenter puts it mid-film—“music to slit your wrists to.” That’s a typical oversimplification: OK Computer is an album of abstractions, composed of fragmented vignettes full of alienation, anxiety, and anger. If all that makes you suicidal, then you were halfway there already.

Nevertheless, it speaks to the underlying, undying perception of Radiohead as miserable whiners. Much of Meeting People Is Easy is about Thom Yorke and co. dealing with the onus of that image, as politely and professionally as they can, even as they’re confronted with journalist after journalist forcing their own interpretations on their work, and peppering them with questions like “Does Thom Yorke think life sucks?”

On the other hand, as the film also demonstrates, it’s almost worse to be loved. As OK Computer becomes a smash success—raking in album-of-the-decade laurels and getting branded as a Gen-X Dark Side Of The Moon—Radiohead’s members begin to sag visibly under the weight of all that attention and expectation. Pink Floyd, whose The Wall is an obvious spiritual predecessor, hangs like a specter over the proceedings, name-checked by journalists as a compliment and by guitarist Johnny Greenwood as cautionary example, when he worries aloud about becoming the kind of artistically detached, brand-peddling conglomerate who spends most of its time in board meetings “moving money around.” While the group isn’t yet to the point of arguing over T-shirt sales and real estate investments here, Meeting People captures those whirlwind, disorienting months of initial superstardom, with its growing workload of tangential concerns that gradually take precedence over doing the thing that got you there in the first place.

Gee matches that muddle with a composition that’s dazed and noisy, primarily grainy black-and-white footage evoking security cameras with the occasional splotch of TV-on-the-fritz color. As the band trudges along an endless circuit of airports, cabs, trains, hotel rooms, stadiums, and featureless green rooms, the camera warps these into one staticky, indistinguishable blur. Seemingly half the film is taken up by montages of the band being relentlessly photographed by both fans and the press, flashbulbs popping inches from their numb faces. Meanwhile, the audio bleeds and overlaps in a constant chatter of reviews and commentary, of 100 journalists asking non-questions like “What is music to you?” and forcing the band to justify the “concept album” conceit they’ve forced upon OK Computer—all of it creating what Yorke calls the “fridge buzz,” the low-grade background hum that you can just ignore, but that becomes impossible to once you’ve started focusing on it. Gee’s approach occasionally makes watching Meeting People its own headache-inducing slog, but that’s kind of the point.

Amid all that droning, this ostensible rockumentary occasionally finds room for actual songs, though the fact that these are few and far between mirrors the band’s own frustrations. Live performances of nearly all the songs from OK Computer are included, though these are usually heard in brief snatches—the lyrics of songs like “Lucky” and “Karma Police” taking on sardonic subtext as they begin to feel like commentaries on the band’s growing isolation and identity crisis, Yorke’s mid-song screams unleashed during the multiple renditions of “Paranoid Android” sounding increasingly purgative. We see the group sound-checking with songs in progress and trying to work up new material in its scant time for recording sessions. In one telling moment, we see Yorke working on a version of “Palo Alto” as Gee repeatedly cuts away to guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway doing radio interviews. The look on Yorke’s face makes it clear that this is all that he ever wanted.

Little glimpses like that are the closest the film comes to exploring who Radiohead actually is, which surely proved frustrating to fans just wanting a souvenir. Selway is barely seen anywhere but behind his kit. O’Brien comes off like a regular bloke who’s just sort of clocking in to work. Johnny Greenwood is mostly a lurking, perpetually frowning presence, usually glimpsed hunched over some instrument or another, and avoiding TV interviews because he “thinks he comes across as an idiot.” In the rare moments when he does speak, of course, he’s articulate and surprisingly sweet (though maybe that’s what he means?).

Of them all, bassist Colin Greenwood comes across as the most game, grinning and willingly mingling at awards shows and after-parties, gushing about just being excited to ride in a Lear jet, and graciously sitting for interview after interview, both in English and in French. Still, in one particularly dramatic moment, even Colin finally cracks, telling an NME reporter that he’s completely talked out and how much he’s just now realized he hates doing this. Although, even then, he immediately apologizes.

As for Yorke, if you came into the film finding him pretentious or overly self-serious, well, it probably won’t dissuade you. He spends the duration seeming tetchy and vaguely embarrassed, getting fed up quickly with photo shoots and awards show promos, and derailing interviews with discursive rambles about the International Monetary Fund. In one oft-cited scene, Yorke holds his microphone out toward a festival crowd, allowing them to sing “Creep” for him while he stands there and smirks—whether out of humility or derision, it’s difficult to tell—before joining in half-heartedly on the chorus, his voice taking on a mocking tone. He often comes off as put-upon, ungrateful, and suspicious of everyone around him.

On the other hand, Meeting People goes a long way toward putting that attitude in perspective. “Any degree of success automatically brings with it the assumption you’ve cheated or you’re full of shit,” Yorke explains of his innate, very English idea of celebrity. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Yorke is constantly grappling with the idea that he is a fraud—that OK Computer’s success was a fluke that can’t be repeated, that they are merely “running on bravado,” that the adulation they’ve received isn’t sustainable, that it has more to do with timing and pure chance than it does with them. (At least on that last point, his pessimism is reinforced somewhat by a scene at the Q Magazine Awards, where OK Computer takes top prize over such worthy competitors as, uh, Texas and Fun Lovin’ Criminals.)

At the same time, it also greatly humanizes him, revealing why he even bothers with this shit if it makes him so unhappy. In a disarmingly candid monologue, delivered from the back of one of those ever-present cabs, Yorke recalls the power that albums like The Smiths’ Strangeways Here We Come had on him, saying that it “means everything” when he meets a teenage fan who feels the same way about his own music. “The idea that you would be one of those bands to somebody,” he says, “that thing of it being imprinted on your heart, you know? Every note of it.”

Gee follows this confession with a scene of Yorke standing outside a nightclub’s velvet rope, turned away from what was supposed to be some sort of after-party, and slouching off humiliated to the taunts of some prick yelling, “Dude, write a song about it! C’mon, write it right now!” and “Radiohead! ‘Creep’! Dickhead!” With these scenes taken together, you understand the Faustian bargain of Yorke’s existence, and that of any artist who’s become successful: the guy who just wants to write songs that touch people the way others’ music has touched him, and to many, this makes him a risible asshole.

Later, as we see Yorke placing a small stick-figure drawing scrawled with the words “I am not here and this is not really happening” on his hotel window, all as Scott Walker’s “On My Own Again” plays, it becomes clear that Yorke’s isolation is not the typical bored rock-star frustration witnessed in similar documentaries like Bob Dylan’s Eat The Document or Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues. It’s part of an existential crisis that leads to a near-total collapse—not just of his band but of himself.

Of course, Radiohead didn’t break up, and Thom Yorke didn’t retreat from the spotlight, which both lends Meeting People Is Easy a happy epilogue (for fans, anyway) and robs it of any suspense. All in all, the tumult surrounding the success of OK Computer was merely a blip, a growing pain in what would become a long and prolific career—one where the group was finally afforded far more control over its time and energies. But it doesn’t make it any less compelling a document of the grating, brain-sucking, banal price of fame. And it might just make you a little more sympathetic to those who unwittingly stumble into it, just because they have the misfortune to be really good at what they do.