“Get on the ground, motherfuckers,” declares Wayne Coyne, directing two somewhat confused kids to lie on their chests in the dingy kitchen of a Vietnamese noodle bar.
The lead singer for psychedelic post-punk rock band The Flaming Lips, Coyne isn’t perpetrating a hold-up but is reenacting a 1977 gunpoint robbery he experienced while employed at the eatery—which, at the time, had been a Long John Silver’s fast food restaurant where he worked as a $60-a-week fry cook (and where, because of his 12-year tenure, he earned a diamond pin for long service). With lively good humor and a trace of mischievousness, Coyne races through the back room, pointing out the entry and exit routes used by the daring daylight crooks while remembering how close he had once come to being a statistic. “I just thought, ‘My god, this is really how you die,’” he says. “One minute you’re just cooking up someone’s order of french fries, and the next minute you’re laying on the floor and they blow your brains out. And there’s no music, there’s no significance—it’s just random.”
Beautifully capturing the essence of The Flaming Lips and their wonderfully weird music—unpredictable, eccentric, slightly insane, and laced with equal measures of joy and sorrow—this early scene is the highlight of Bradley Beesley’s The Fearless Freaks, a sterling documentary about the life and times of the Oklahoma-bred band. As Coyne later recalls during a phone conversation from his Oklahoma City home, the near-death experience wound up being a formative catalyst for his subsequent career as the frontman for one of America’s most unique and idiosyncratic rock and roll outfits.
“Immediately after it happened, you get this sense that you’ve been given a whole new life, and now you can do whatever you want,” he says, describing how the area had been plagued by fast food restaurant murders and that it therefore wouldn’t have been uncommon to be killed while deep frying chicken. “For the next couple of weeks, [I had] the idea that, why not do what you want to do? What’s the worst that can happen? That you get humiliated and people make fun of you? I was like, I can handle that. I just had a gun shoved up to my temple by these pissed-off robbers. If people laugh at me, I don’t care.”
Such a go-for-broke, devil-may-care spirit of adventurousness is indicative of not only The Flaming Lips—whose eclectic catalog spans from 1986’s Here It Is to 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, including the unique 1997 four-CD album Zaireeka that required fans to listen to all four discs concurrently—but also Beesley’s fascinating new documentary, which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Festival and made its DVD debut last month through Shout! Factory releases. Overflowing with behind-the-scenes footage and forthright interviews with the band, which also includes bassist Michael Ivins and drummer/instrumentalist Steven Drozd, the film is a kaleidoscopic pastiche of candid conversations and surprising confessions that chart the band’s 22-year evolution from small-town novelty act (originally fronted by Wayne’s brother Mark in 1983) to one-hit wonder (with 1994’s MTV hit “She Don’t Use Jelly”) to 2003 Grammy award-winners (for Best Rock Instrumental Performance). A loving portrait made from the inside out, it’s a funny and touching rock doc more interested in its subjects’ personal stories than with regurgitating concert footage and music videos, imbued with an intimacy rarely found in a genre all-too-often dominated by shallow, exploitative “Behind the Music”-style fluff.
Beesley, a documentarian from Austin, Texas, cut his filmmaking teeth working with the Lips in 1992 as a student at the University of Oklahoma, where he attended the same art school as Coyne’s then-girlfriend (and now wife) Michelle. “I happened to be the guy who owned a motion picture film camera instead of a video camera, and Wayne was the guy in town who had enough money to shoot motion picture film, so I sort of spent my college years experimenting with Wayne on the [band’s] music videos,” he says. Not content with merely working on these low-budget videos, Beesley, whose interest always strayed toward experimental cinema verité filmmaking, would shoot everything and anything he could while around the band: downtime in the studio and on the band’s video sets, Coyne family parties, backstage tour shenanigans, and random cinematographic tests with Coyne that included putting Christmas lights inside the camera (“To see if we could get some weird lens flare flicker effect”) and squirting bleach on the film itself. Beesley and the Lips’ relationship flourished thanks in part to their shared interest in out-there audaciousness. “We fueled each other’s fire,” Beesley says. In agreement, Coyne says, “He’s always doing something interesting, and I’m always needing help. So it works out good.”
In 1999, Beesley, realizing he had accumulated roughly 400 hours of unused footage, put together a 45-minute short film entitled The Flaming Lips Have Landed that played at SXSW in 2000, and shortly thereafter decided that he had enough material for a feature film. He set about conducting interviews with the band, former members, and admirers (including Liz Phair, The White Stripes’ Jack White, and The Butthole Surfers’ Gilby Clarke), while also looking into bizarre stories from Coyne and Drozd’s pasts (such as the Long John Silver scene) that he’d long wanted to investigate. Because of Beesley’s regular attendance at holiday gatherings, as well as his collaboration with Coyne (as director of photography) on projects such as the singer’s directorial debut, Christmas on Mars—an independent film about the red planet’s first yuletide celebration starring the Lips which, as of this article’s writing, is still being shot in the singer’s backyard—the band’s relatives were familiar with his tendency to regularly show up in the neighborhood with a film camera. So he had little trouble convincing Coyne’s mother, his brothers Tommy and Kenny, and Drozd’s brother James to participate. James, the day after being released from prison, joined in an impromptu jam session alongside his brother Steven and his saxophone-playing father Vernon.
Beesley’s explanation for focusing less on concert clips and more on the band members’ peculiar backstories and amusing anecdotes—including the story behind Coyne’s penchant for performing with a bloody forehead (it involves an inspirational Miles Davis photo) and his methodical technique for cleaning said blood off his trademark white suits—is simple. “There’s only so much live footage and so many music videos people can take,” he says. Of particular interest to Beesley was the fact that the down-to-earth Coyne still lives among crack dealers and prostitutes in the dilapidated Oklahoma City ghetto in which he grew up, residing with his wife and dogs mere miles away from his relatives. “I thought it was more important to the story that this guy could have gone to LA or New York like everybody else, but he stayed in the same neighborhood he grew up in, and continues to live there,” he says. The director’s interest in the Lips’ strange childhoods was further bolstered by the discovery that Coyne’s brother Kenny possessed countless hours of Super 8 home movies of the family’s football games (their team’s name, The Fearless Freaks, gives Beesley’s doc its title), as well as by hearing stories about the singer’s wild youthful exploits. One such tale cut from the final film depicts a 12-year-old Coyne taking off to California on the back of a motorcycle with his brothers, only to realize he’s forgotten to bring shoes along for the trip.
Coyne admits that if another filmmaker had approached him with plans for such a probing documentary he probably would have bristled at the idea. However, his relationship with Beesley, as well as his faith in the filmmaker’s abilities, gave him no reason to object to the project. “You build a kind of honesty and an ego-less partnership” after years of working together, says Coyne. “And Bradley really does have a knack for finding that universal human story within the context of all this stuff that you think should be exciting.” Stuff, presumably, like the Lips’ carnivalesque live shows, which feature Coyne using fake blood to simulate head wounds, naked female dancers, musicians in furry animal costumes, and the singer “walking” on the crowd inside a giant translucent bubble. “It’s the things that he thinks are funny and poignant, that’s the part that I really trust,” he says. Given Beesley’s prior focus on small, character-driven stories in 2000’s Hill Stomp Hollar and 2001’s Okie Noodling (both of which feature music by The Flaming Lips), Coyne was sure that the filmmaker’s interest in making The Fearless Freaks had less to do with the band’s recent surge in popularity over the past half-decade than with his continued fascination with weird, colorful people. “I knew that Bradley would make a film that made us look far better than we really are,” he says. “And he would have it [focus on] the human element, not that we’re rock stars and that we make a lot of money.”
The Lips’ trust in Beesley is most clearly felt in a stunning third-act showstopper shot in 2001 in which Drozd, a serious heroin addict during the previous six years, walks Beesley through the process of shooting up while lucidly detailing his path to junkiedom. Shot in stark black-and-white close-ups that convey a sense of palpable immediacy—a stylistic choice Beesley admits was largely due to good luck: “I think it was just because I had black-and-white film stock in the fridge left over from Wayne”—the scene came about after Drozd, who had recently sold his car for a paltry couple of hundred dollars, repeatedly called the filmmaker trying to borrow cash for drugs. “I was like, ‘All right, I’ll give you $50, but you have to let me film you shooting up,’” Beesley says. “‘And not only do you have to do that, but you have to talk about where you’re at right now, how you got there, why you’re there, and really think about this stuff as you’re telling me.’”
The resulting scene finds Drozd candidly, and harrowingly, expounding on his first foray into mainlining heroin, the physical sensation of a smack high, and the terrible cost of his addiction (his girlfriend had just left him at the time of the filming)—all as he struggles to find a viable vein to inject. Yet despite the moment being intensely personal and private, Beesley felt that, considering Drozd’s subsequent ability to kick his habit, the scene had to make the film’s final cut. “That was probably the second to last time he shot up, so I’m proud to have captured it,” he says. “Knowing that he’s been clean since 2001 when we shot that, I think it made everyone feel good about the story, to have some closure. And it would be remiss of me not to [include it], since it was such a huge part of their history for six years—this genius musician on heroin—and had such a profound effect on the band.”
Coyne remembers Drozd’s drug use becoming so severe that “there’d be times when I thought he was probably never going to get over this, and he’ll be a toothless old man that won’t have anything to show for all this great music he’s been able to create.” With Drozd now sober, however, Coyne admits he doesn’t even think about such dire possibilities, and the enthusiastic reaction to the scene at the packed SXSW premiere—which Coyne says was an “awesome” experience in which he became caught up in the moviegoing audience’s excitement—simply reconfirmed his initial feeling that the scene was a necessary component of Beesley’s cinematic biography. “Our story really is a wonderful, wonderful story,” Coyne says. “It’s not without its hard moments, and I’m sure we’ll have more to come. And I can tell people this is the absolute truth. This isn’t some exaggeration that people are trying to look cool by. I’m here to tell you, this is a real guy and these are real drugs and this is a real story. We’re living proof that, as bad as it can be, it’s also as good as it can turn out.”
Such unvarnished honesty, in fact, is perhaps the overriding sense one gets from The Fearless Freaks, which may craft its own version of The Flaming Lips story but is nonetheless imbued with an unblinking candor and authenticity similar to that found in the Lips’ emotionally charged music. It’s an impression Coyne—a rock and roll star who comes across throughout the film (as well as during interviews) as simultaneously larger-than-life and imminently approachable—is eager to promote. Returning to a discussion of his life-affirming run-in with mortality at Long John Silver’s, Coyne says he thinks “mostly what people fear is that other people won’t understand them. And I just know if you tell the absolute truth and just don’t let there be any options [as to what’s real and what’s fictional], people will relate to you. We don’t want people to think that some PR firm has gotten together with us and told us, ‘This is the best story to tell.’ I want to be believed. I want people to trust me.” Thanks to Beesley’s affectionate, illuminating, and persuasive documentary, Coyne has nothing to worry about.