James Murphy is a man who knows his craft; he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and it was only in his thirties that the music he made was listened to by wider audiences. As such, Murphy was in something of a unique position and was afforded the opportunity to form the perfect band for the beginning of the 21st Century. In a decade which witnessed pop eating itself, LCD Soundsystem stood out as a band who did it with an ironic wink. Murphy’s every decision as LCD Soundsystem was precisely thought out and informed by years of scholarly study of the great musicians of our time. As such his decision to end the band with a three and a half hour long concert at Madison Square Garden last year was the last in a series of decisions to create the perfect band for the last ten years.
LCD Soundsystem’s first single, Losing My Edge, was a song which witnessed Murphy pour out his soul as he was superseded by a new wave of youngsters who were able to outperform him musically via the internet, despite his years of dedication as an underground DJ. The song ends with a list of artists as a demonstration of Murphy’s diverse taste; a taste which has taken him years to develop and demonstrates his admiration for musicians. Shut Up And Play The Hits is a film which witnesses Murphy join the list of bands he mentions as one of Pop music’s greats and demonstrates his brilliance as a creative force and his masterful approach to his career.
Shut Up And Play The Hits offers insight into one of the most profoundly self-aware musical endeavours ever committed, a self imposed end to a band. At the age of 41, Murphy decided that he was too old and becoming too famous to continue LCD Soundsystem. He realised that as a popular musician, the endless touring, new albums and other commitments were weighing heavily on his life. And after devoting a substantial part of it to his craft, he now wanted to do something else, so he decided to bring LCD Soundsystem to an end.
Early on in the documentary we see an extended interview which explores Murphy’s decision to disband LCD Soundsystem and highlights the ambiguities of his decision. Is he calling it quits because he’s too old? Because he’s worried about becoming too famous? It still remains unclear. The closest Murphy comes to an answer is that; “I’m 41, I like eating out, I like riding on the subway, I don’t want to be famous.” So… Both? The interview also reveals Murphy’s continuing fascination with music and the concepts which surround it, such as the idea of the showman. When he thinks of figures such as Lou Reed, David Bowie & Nick Cave he applies a mythical element to them; he cannot imagine them outside of the context of their music, he cannot imagine them brushing their teeth, waiting in queues, etc. and as such he never felt comfortable as a musician because he never thought of himself with that same mythology. As such the distance between Murphy and the music makes for a dynamic relationship, as he regulates art to fit his needs, but does so in a way which masks the manipulation as a stroke of genius.
The film plays out as a series of impeccable live performances of the band’s greatest songs interspersed with scenes of Murphy in the run up to and just after the show. It would seem he is man in control of his life and, despite the inevitable tears which come from the end to such a huge chapter, Murphy looks to the future as he leaves LCD Soundsystem behind him. It’s a portrait of an artist who knows what he wants and knows how to get it, but also understands the emotional toll it takes upon himself and the band.
LCD Soundsystem’s greatest success early on in their career was tapping into something of a musical zeitgeist; at the dawn of the 21st Century no-one really knew what effect the internet would have upon music, it only seemed perpetuate fear, as sites like Napster and P2P networks had the potential to undermine music irreparably. LCD Soundsystem tapped into that fear and taught audiences that it may be the musical apocalypse, so let’s dance until the music stops. Later in their career they outperformed so many bands which aped artists of the past to gain credibility by taking it to the next level and openly undermining the regurgitative nature of pop music. As music adjusts to the internet and progressively learns to embrace it, the lessons of LCD Soundsystem seem to ring truer, but I find it hard to believe that they would be able to be so perceptive for much longer.
Shut Up And Play The Hits is like those films of controlled demolitions of tower blocks, every explosive is planted specifically so that the building implodes in a plume of dust without effected the nearby buildings. I’ve always been fascinated by those films, the juxtaposition of destruction and beauty and the emptiness which is left in the wake of the building’s collapse always held an eerie charm. Shut Up And Play The Hits also ends with an eerie charm as Murphy finds himself in a storage room with his now defunct gear and quietly cries to himself. Murphy engineered the end of his band and now we are without a band who captured the mood of a generation like no other, but did so in a way which meant that no-one would forget their accomplishments anytime soon.