By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 27, 2022 at 6:01 PM Photography: Rebecca Greenfield

The best concert coming to Milwaukee stages this holiday season might actually be a movie, as the 2000s post-punk indie rock doc "Meet Me in the Bathroom" will take the Turner Hall Ballroom spotlight on Thursday, Dec. 29.

Based on Lizzy Goodman's book of the same name, "Meet Me in the Bathroom" follows the story of several bands that would define the sound of the new millennium's start – all getting their start in the DIY music scene of New York City. Some, like the Strokes, would quickly blow up from buzzy club shows into international stardom; others, like Interpol, would have to navigate the ebbs and flows of a fickle music audience and industry, particularly with the advent of the internet. All of them – including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, the Moldy Peaches, TV on the Radio and more – would become mainstays on the soundtrack of the new era and a rapidly changing world.

The cinematic chronicle comes directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, no strangers to the rock doc genre with their critically acclaimed and moment-capturing 2012 concert film "Shut Up and Play the Hits," recording LCD Soundsystem's (then) final performance. "Meet Me in the Bathroom," however, was a different beast for the duo, going from capturing one night to capturing a sprawling music movement across several years as well as relying entirely on archival footage to tell the story and capture the energy of their bands along with the city that cultivated their sound. 

One thing they definitely share in common, beyond the presence of LCD Soundsystem? Absolutely killer music. You might not hear a better movie this year – and considering the collection of vivid archival concert footage and behind-the-scenes clips, you might not see one either, especially if you're already coming in a fan of these bands. 

Before the rare Turner Hall Ballroom screening, I spoke with co-directors Southern and Lovelace about why they honed in on this particular musical movement, how the documentary came together and if they're at all annoyed that LCD Soundsystem's cathartic final bow at the heart of "Shut Up and Play the Hits" ... is no longer their final bow. 

OnMilwaukee: Why this era? What about this music scene speaks to you? 

Dylan Southern: It was largely how much we enjoyed Lizzy’s book. Obviously we had done the LCD film, and there was a neat crossover between us and Lizzy, because we’d shot LCD’s final ever show – at the time – and Lizzy was actually there in the crowd that night. And it was that night that she got the idea to make the book. So there was a strange kind of synergy.

We hadn’t intended to make another music documentary at all, but this period of music was kind of formative for us. We were in our early 20s in Liverpool at the time, and we were sort of making our initial forays into being filmmakers, making music videos for local bands and things like that. It was a period that we were really into at the time. 

It was a combination of having made the LCD film and that connection with Lizzy. My friend sent me the galleys of the book before it was released in the UK, and I think I read it in a day. The initial thought was: There’s a TV series in this, a four-part documentary or something. That’s how we pitched it to begin with. But I think we were just a little bit early. There hadn’t been any kind of successful four-part music docs on the streamers at that point. If we pitched it maybe a year later or two years later, it probably would’ve gone straight away. But we reformatted it as a feature doc, which is the film playing now.

If this was that four-part doc, what would you have expanded upon? What would that have looked like?

DS: When you get a narrative as expansive as this and you have to boil it down to 90 minutes, 100 minutes, our feeling was we can’t exhaustively tell everyone’s stories in 90 minutes or 100 minutes. What we can do is create a kind of time capsule that gives you a visceral feeling of time and place – and then hopefully, if people enjoy it who don’t know the scene, they can pick up Lizzy’s book or the records. 

When we were pitching it as a longer series, it just meant we could include more of the artists who perhaps had to be pruned a little bit in the feature doc version. We probably would’ve gone into Jonathan Fire*Eater, into more of the catalytic bands that preceded the ones that we focused on. Gotten a bit more granular with what was happening socially, culturally at the time, and just let the story play out a bit longer.

Will Lovelace: I agree with that. We talked a lot about how you would’ve been able to start a bit earlier, and I think when we get to the Brooklyn bands emerging in the middle of the film, there’s a lot of bands who are mentioned but you don’t get to spend much time with them or hear from them. It would’ve been great to be able to include some of their music and their stories as well.

The Strokes
PHOTO: Alessio Pizzicannella

It’s a very sprawling documentary and subject. How did you guys go about figuring out how you were going to weave all these stories together in 100 minutes?

DS: The first thing we did was we took the book and looked at it, and realized there’s far too much here. But what we do when we always make a film is look for what a fictional genre might look for in the writing – and it appeared to us that all of these stories, in their own way, were coming-of-age stories. You’ve got Karen (O, lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), who’s kind of the archetypal coming-of-age character who arrives in the city as one person and discovers a whole different side of themselves. We were looking for kind of coming-of-age elements in each of the stories. And then I always find origin stories more fascinating than just trotting out the VH1 “Behind the Music” – and then we made this album, so on – so it was very much “what are the origin stories of these bands?” Then we wanted a good cross-section of the artists.

So first of all, we got in a room and essentially wrote the film that we wanted to make. Then the reality of life – on its own, but then also during COVID – influenced the way the film was made. Originally we were going to go to New York and relocate there. It still would’ve been largely archive, but we were going to shoot original concerts and tackled some parts of it in a different way. But COVID hit, and this very much became a lockdown movie – which had its advantages, because then we were able to commit to 100 percent archive. The fact that all of the characters and all of the people associated with them were also locked down meant that people had time and wanted tasks to do, so they found this archive that maybe we wouldn’t have got if it hadn’t been for that situation. 

When making a film that’s 100 percent reliant on archive, you can only use the material that’s out there. So we would hope that this performance from this show exists because this is kind of crucial for this aspect of the story, and then you spend months trying to find this bit of archive and find that nobody ever shot that show, and you need to work it a different way. So there was careful planning of the story we wanted to tell, but with the ability to rework stuff. 

And then sometimes we would get archive that we hadn’t planned for, and it would send the story in a different direction. So it was a much different process than the two music documentaries that we’d made previously. It was a new way of doing it for us.

What was one of those instances where you’d get new footage that’d change the story?

DS: Getting the footage of (Interpol lead singer) Paul Banks on 9/11 was something that we weren’t expecting. We knew 9/11 had to be in the film, because it was the biggest event in the world, happening in this city – a moment of historical importance happening in the city where our bands came from, at the time we’re talking about. But we knew it had to be handled sensitively and also we wanted to connect it. We’ve seen documentaries about 9/11 over the years, and they all deal with it in specific ways, but we’d never seen one that dealt with it from the perspective of a community of artists. So getting that footage and seeing Paul Banks out on the street in the moments immediately after the towers had fallen was important to us, because it gave us the context for that kind of moment.

Elsewhere, we were lucky to get the first performances from several of the bands in the documentary. We got the first ever LCD performance, which was in London, at sort of the eleventh hour. We didn’t think we were going to have anything for that, but it came through right at the last minute. There was an amazing woman named Nanci Sarrouf who hung out with all the bands back in the day, and she had a lock-up in L.A. that had a suitcase full of unprocessed 35mm film and DV tapes. So in the process, when you’d have a breakthrough like that, those were the amazing moments. Because other times you’d be like, “Well, how do you convey this particular part?” It was sort of equally freeing and equally limiting telling a story that way.

WL: There were other times, you’d find – like with the parking lot show in Brooklyn, for example, which we knew existed and knew someone had filmed it, but watching it and seeing other people in the crowd with cameras sometimes would point you in the direction of some other material that you didn’t know existed. Or you would find another photographer or videographer who was there. A lot of our archive came about that way: spotting someone or wondering who was hanging around with these bands and finding them, then that would point you in the direction of other material. It was a very exciting, almost first-person way of finding this stuff – Dylan and I, and Vivienne (Perry) and Christian (Cargill), the producers, finding it all ourselves. 

What is the state of documentary right now? In some ways, it seems more popular than ever – with Netflix series like “Tiger King” and others breaking viewership records and becoming sensations – but is that the way it feels for documentarians too? Is there more freedom with all these streamers out there, or less?

DS: We’ve yet to make something for one of the streamers so we couldn’t say anything from personal experience. But it depends on what kind of documentaries you like. Because “Tiger King” is loads of fun, but perhaps it ran a little too long and could’ve told its story a little more quickly. 

Ran a whole second season too long.

DS: A documentary I really enjoyed this year was “Fire of Love,” the one about the volcanologists. I really loved that. And I think it’s a really good time for documentary because there’s lots of different types being made. I think if they were all like the Netflix six-parters, if everything was going in that direction, it’s great for those – but as long as there’s lots of different types where you can see all kinds of different things. There’s more content than ever before being made – I don’t know who watches it all – which means there’s more documentaries being made. 

It’s been a really good few years for music docs as well. When we started doing them, there wasn’t such a proliferation of music docs when we made our first one, but now there’s so many going into production.

The documentary is about the Strokes and all of them, but it’s also this tribute to New York City in this post-Y2K, internet explosion moment. What was it about that city and that time?

DS: It was kind of a perfect storm. Popular culture at that point was not at its pinnacle. (Laughs) It was one of those pockets of time where something needed to happen, where there was a deficit of something. It was also a time when, whether the world knew it or not, it was on the precipice of monumental change – with technology, with politics, with all the things that would unfold in those years. There was just an energy that needed to be released in some way. And how does any scene start? It’s just the right people end up at the right place at the right time. What was interesting about this, to us, was given how much the world has changed in the intervening 20-odd years, could it ever happen like that again? Would there ever be such an organic scene emerging in one place, now that music is apparently democratized by the internet? Nobody communicates with people the way they used to, and nobody consumes music the way they used to. There are little scenes all over the place – but will one ever take hold? That’s what fascinated us.

Meet Me in the Bathroom
PHOTO: Ruvan Wijesooriya

Also: We were in Liverpool at the time, and we saw this whole scene virtually live in the UK because it was the British music press that got behind all these artists to begin with, and they all came here to tour. It always felt like the scene kind of broke here for each of the bands. The time just fascinated us, even without the music – that particular period where not many people had cell phones and I was only just learning what the internet was. There’s something quite romantic about that period of not knowing where your friends were going to be in the evening and checking out a couple of bars to find them. I guess we’re now at the age where we’re sort of old farts, saying how it’s so much better when we were young.

There is something almost romantic about – and I use this phrase lovingly – the scum-bum nature of this DIY scene emerging in the doc. You wonder if anything like this could ever happen again – especially since there’s so much out there, and how much are people watching or listening to it at the same time since it’s all so fractured.

DS: And it feels like anything that is huge is designed to be so by kind of the corporate overlords, so to speak, rather than being a grassroots, DIY thing that’s come up from nowhere.

WL: Alongside the music we loved, what was happening in the city just felt fascinating to us. I’m sure there will be scenes like this happening again, but it feels like it wouldn’t happen in the exact same way. And then when we read Lizzy’s book, it was such a page-turner, and the city felt so important to this story. You couldn’t have just transported these artists to a different city, and it would’ve happened in the same way. It was absolutely crucial that it was in New York. 

But also not being from New York, it’s always a place that fascinated both of us. It’s always one of those places where it feels like magic happens.

DS: New York, for artists and creative people, has this sort of mythology to it – whether it’s CBGB or the jazz scene earlier. And I always find it fascinating: What’s the reality of the mythology? One of the reasons why we structured the film the way we did was to ask the question: Do these bands enter into that canon? And it’s really for the audience to decide. There’s also a certain romance about going to another place, striving to do something and achieving it. You know you can’t hold onto that feeling, and that it inevitably falls apart into drugs or band disputes or whatever, but we wanted it to be a celebration of that moment where everything clicks and everything emerges from that place. But it’s ephemeral. 

That’s why the coming-of-age story kind of spoke to us. You probably don’t know you’re having the best time of your life while you’re having it; it’s something you appreciate later looking back at it. And some people chase that feeling, as Albert (Hammond Jr. of The Strokes) says toward the end of the film, but we wanted to try and capture what it’s like to be in that moment.

I have to ask: Are you annoyed that LCD Soundsystem came back after “Shut Up and Play the Hits”?

DS: For about a second – but then I was like, “Amazing, we’re gonna be able to see LCD play again.” It means our film isn’t “Stop Making Sense” but we’ll just have James (Murphy) tell us when he actually is going to stop the band and make another one.

WL: It’s great. It’s brilliant seeing them live and making loads more brilliant music. If you see that band play live, you can only appreciate that they’re still doing it.

DS: You can’t be mad at them. To get more music and more shows: How can you be mad at that?

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.