Like Perry Ferrell and Gibby Haynes, two of his biggest influences, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne boasts the kind of outsized charisma that leads some to become musicians and others to become cult leaders. Admittedly, those professions overlap considerably: Just ask Charles Manson. In the wonderful new rockumentary The Fearless Freaks, Flaming Lips fans describe the band's live performances in almost spiritual terms, and for once, their fervor seems wholly justified.
Not straightforward reportage so much as a sincere, almost fawning cinematic love letter, The Fearless Freaks documents what it correctly bills as "the wondrously improbable story of The Flaming Lips," charting the group's ascent from a bunch of fringe weirdoes peddling a crude-but-compelling fusion of punk-rock energy, psychedelic weirdness, and unabashed theatricality to bona fide rock royalty. As Freaks vividly illustrates, The Flaming Lips represents a thrilling anomaly, an iconoclastic band of visionaries lucky enough to have a major like Warner Brothers bankrolling many of its most outlandish, avant-garde ideas, from a four-disc CD set in which all the discs are designed to be played at the same time to strange experiments involving car-stereo symphonies.
Then again, Freaks director Bradley Beesley has an easier time of it due to Coyne's enormous personal magnetism and the surreal, almost Federico Fellini-esque sense of spectacle that makes The Flaming Lips' live performances a feast for the senses. At times, Beesley's love for the band and his good friend Coyne threatens to turn the film into hagiography, but then the film takes an exceedingly dark turn. Drugs figure prominently, but not in the way fans might expect. The Flaming Lips' music, lyrics, and imagery all seem to betray a strong familiarity with hallucinogens, but Coyne these days is drug-free, and Freaks paradoxically boasts an anti-drug message far more potent and convincing than a thousand hysterical Thirteen-style freak-outs. For well over half a decade, enormously talented multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd (who Haynes only half-jokingly refers to as the greatest asset the less technically accomplished Coyne has) wrestled with a heroin addiction that threatened to destroy his life and career. In Freaks' most agonizing scene, Drozd prepares to shoot up, delivering straight talk about his addiction that's all the most horrifying for its straightforwardness. Drozd thankfully manages to kick heroin, setting the scene for the group's current renaissance, but his dark edges give the film an exhilarating balance between the comic and the tragic, between the band's life-affirming joy and innocence and the darkness that surrounds Coyne and Drozd's lives. Fearless Freaks does full justice to its subject, and when dealing with a band as weird and wonderful as The Flaming Lips, that's the highest praise.