For the next several weeks, film buffs are going to spend a lot of time arguing about whether The Artist is a great film or merely a tribute to great films. This debate hinges (at least a little bit) on how much credit The Artist deserves for reviving a moribund cinematic form and making it relevant for contemporary audiences. It’s a compelling idea—though I’m not interested in discussing it in the context of silent movies concocted by an evil partnership between the French and the Weinstein brothers. I’d rather talk about how it applies to a film with seemingly no current relevance at all—the recent documentary Talihina Sky: The Story Of Kings Of Leon—and the death (or at least hibernation) of “dark side of fame” mythology in rock music.
Like The Artist, not many people have seen Talihina Sky yet; unlike The Artist, it’s almost certainly going to stay that way for Talihina Sky. It played film festivals throughout 2011, starting with New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, before finally being released on DVD and Blu-ray in November. Talihina Sky follows the band of three brothers and one cousin from its humble beginnings in a Winter’s Bone-like community in Oklahoma to its current life as an arena-filling rock band that inspires tens of thousands of people to sing the words to “Sex On Fire” without laughing. The meager amount of attention that Talihina Sky received upon initial release mostly came in the wake of Kings Of Leon’s spectacular flameout this summer during its U.S. tour, which was abruptly canceled after frontman Caleb Followill appeared thoroughly, embarrassingly, and quotably drunk during a concert in Dallas.
Becoming a platinum-selling band with 2008’s Only By The Night, and then dipping a bit with 2010’s gold-certified Come Around Sundown, Kings Of Leon exited 2011 looking like a band on the verge of falling apart. Watching Talihina Sky is like rewinding the tape and trying to pinpoint exactly when the wheels started to come off.
I’m not sure if there’s a specific moment in the film that captures exactly what went wrong with Kings Of Leon. Here’s what Talihina Sky does have: Lots of scenes where bitchin’ guys in fabulous haircuts smoke weed on private jets. And a couple of scenes where Followill nurses a half-empty bottle of Jameson and muses about his family, religion, and how record-label guys picking out singles from an album is like watching a “smut film.” And one weird, (probably) unintentional callback to the Chris Holmes sequence in The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, where Followill jokes about shooting heroin to kill his pre-show boredom while his mother looks on backstage.
Just as The Artist attempts to revive the romance of 1920s Hollywood in these tougher, crueler times, Talihina Sky is its own kind of anachronism, offering an extended riff on rock movies that explore the dark, dank, and “real” underbelly of rock ’n’ roll success and celebrity. Similar to how Kings Of Leon’s music re-assembles the spare parts of the cool-guy rock bands of the ’70s and ’80s, Talihina Sky cleverly rips off classic-rock cinema, touching on the band members’ spiritual and political preoccupations (a la Rattle & Hum), their weariness of day-to-day tour monotony and the substance abuse it engenders (a la The Last Waltz), and how arguments over sonic minutia in the studio can point to deeper fissures (a la I Am Trying To Break Your Heart).
But while The Artist feels like the potential starting point of a new fad, inspiring well-intentioned fans to add Chaplin films that they’ll feel bad about not watching to their Netflix queues, Talihina Sky looks like the unceremonious end to a certain kind of rock tradition. Surveying the current rock landscape, it’s clear we are firmly entrenched in a post-decadent period. It’s difficult to imagine Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, or any of the other big, new indie-rock bands from the past several years having misadventures with drugs or even feigning an interest in sex, much less having it indiscriminately with many partners. It is no longer hip to exude drunkenness and/or horniness; acting like a rock band is now discouraged among rock bands.
For decades, “dark side of fame” mythology was a core part of rock music. Like so many things in pop, it boiled down to a gross display of power. This power—signified by ready access to money, intoxicants, and young women willing to do nasty things on airplanes, even (nay, especially) in the company of camera crews—was so tremendous that even the wildest fantasies of the audience became mundane, boring, and finally deadening to our favorite rock stars. Which only made that power more enticing to the audience. It can be traced back to the 1967 film Don’t Look Back, which follows Bob Dylan on a British tour as he struggles to tolerate so many beautiful women and fawning journalists calling him a genius all the goddamn time. (He also appears to be on speed for much of the film, though it curiously makes him even less elated.) It’s possible to watch Don’t Look Back and believe that Dylan was a real dick in the mid-’60s—but he’s a glamorous dick, and his lifestyle of flitting from one show to the next with a coterie of hangers-on looks like the opposite of a drag from the perspective of mere mortals.
As rock music became big corporate business in the ’70s, The Eagles offered up Hotel California, a concept album that introduced the phrase “life in the fast lane” into the lexicon. It was presented as a warning and—in the manner of all “dark side of fame” mythology—was perceived as an invitation. A few years later, The Eagles’ enormously successful SoCal peers Fleetwood Mac took the “show, don’t tell” approach with Tusk, where Stevie Nicks tried to sing the cocaine out of her nostrils, and did it so alluringly that it made people like Courtney Love want to follow in her footsteps. (Judging by the narrow criterion of effectively discouraging people against pursuing stardom, “warning” songs have an alarmingly high failure rate.)
By the ’80s, bands started making “dark side of fame” records before they were actually famous. Like Appetite For Destruction, which opens with the greatest warning song of all-time, “Welcome To The Jungle,” which Guns N’ Roses pulled together when they were still eating discarded pizza slices out of Dumpsters. Then there’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive” from Bon Jovi’s 1986 breakthrough Slippery When Wet, a song that would sound totally ridiculous (in a bad way) if Jon Bon Jovi hadn’t gone on to actually become wanted, dead or alive, once the album became a hit. (He certainly hadn’t seen a million faces, much less rocked them, before Slippery When Wet.)
The irony in “dark side of fame” mythology was unavoidable up until the ’90s, a time when warning songs suddenly became the only media products that weren’t ironic. In the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, only Kid Rock dared to bring it all back home with 1998’s “Only God Knows Why,” a rewrite of “Turn The Page” where the self-proclaimed American Bad-Ass sang ruefully of “outstretched hands and one-night stands/still I can’t find love,” presumably between doing lines off of a stripper’s tits.
A few years later, Kings Of Leon emerged as part of the so-called “return of rock” generation ushered in by The Strokes. To date, the early-’00s class of skinny, immaculately wasted retro-rockers—Fever To Tell-era Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Vines, The Darkness, Jet, and several other progressively cheesier bands—remains the most recent remnant of anything resembling (or aspiring to resemble) old-world rock-star cool.
The Strokes’ underrated 2011 album Angles sort of seems like a late-period “dark side of fame” rock record, given the much-publicized infighting that plagued the album’s creation. Except that Angles was widely ignored upon release; at present, The Strokes are seriously lacking in power to grossly display. In the meantime, “dark side of fame” mythology has found a new home in contemporary hip-hop. One of last year’s best-selling rap albums, Drake’s Take Care, is a grim depiction of a fabulously wealthy young man’s existence; like Dylan, Drake could do without all you people constantly admiring him. Another monster album rap record from 2011, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, includes a song called “Welcome To The Jungle” (where Jay calls himself “black Axl Rose”) and opens with “No Church In The Wild,” which has Kanye sniffing coke off of a black groupie and belligerently directing the positions of his sex partners like Axl in Appetite’s “It’s So Easy.” And then there’s critically acclaimed R&B singer Frank Ocean, who sings the hook on “No Church” and repurposed the melody of Hotel California’s title track for last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra. He’s since passed Don Henley in the fast lane.
Where does this leave Kings Of Leon? After Talihina Sky, I’m more interested in them than I have been in a while. I admit it: I want rock music to be a little decadent. It’s supposed to be decadent, and suck you into a sleazy, skeezy, escapist wormhole every once in a while. Also, this was a pretty good band once; the first two albums approximate the feeling of sex on fire without having to state it explicitly. I’m curious whether the album that rises from the ashes of Kings Of Leon’s disastrous 2011 will recapture that old decadent feeling. I’d even be happy with a tribute to the great acts of decadence of rock’s distant past.