As a teenager, I was completely enamored by The Strokes, an obsession cemented when “Reptilia” played over the local tattoo parlor’s speakers while I was getting my nose pierced at 15. It was a trade-off I made with my parents for going through with the Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation, and having Julian Casablancas’ raspy voice narrating the experience made it feel all the more sexy, rebellious and special. Sure, perhaps it was a corny moment born of my own self-imposed Manic Pixie Dream Girl prison, but it also felt like a surefire sign that I, too, would one day reside in the alluring metropolis just a 20-minute drive away via Rte. 4 and the George Washington Bridge.
Of course, what I didn’t realize at the time was that the excitement and appeal of rock ’n’ roll’s ostensible rebirth in NYC was already facing its death knell. In their documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom, filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace argue that the direct aftermath of 9/11 was both a creative boon and detriment to such artists living in New York, all constituting a scene born in Lower East Side dive bars and which eventually moved to Williamsburg warehouses. Based on the far more encompassing book by Lizzy Goodman of the same name, the film follows the inception of and eventual popular embrace of bands like The Moldy Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol—with no musical act as integral to the entire package as The Strokes. Oddly enough, the presence of the actual musical alchemy that was conjured during this period is minimized in favor of mythologizing the people behind it. Instead of the film getting viewers pumped with, say, “All My Friends” or “Is This It,” it begins with Ed Begley reciting Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Silent Splendid Sun,” an incredibly haughty sign that this documentary takes itself—and the artists-turned-celebrities it’s surveying—far too seriously. Even more peculiar is the near absence of New York City—specifically the Lower East Side—in the documentary itself, clearly eschewed in favor of centering the rubble of Lower Manhattan immediately after 9/11 and the subsequent mass migration to Brooklyn it kicked off.
What’s most compelling about the documentary is the archival footage (some previously unseen) of the bands during their first fledgling efforts, though the presence of the tangible music that shot these musicians to stardom remains elusive. Even so, the footage is less of a veritable well than a shallow pond—incredibly limited and revealing little depth. Viewers who didn’t necessarily witness the emergence of these bands but are still nostalgic for their presence in adolescent musical discoveries will be disappointed that the kinetic magic of The Strokes playing at Mercury Lounge or Karen O’s self-destructive performances aren’t at all palpable, even if interviews (mined from Goodman’s recordings for her own book) work tirelessly to contextualize the fleeting feeling. Important bits do manage to shine through, though: The Strokes hilariously fail upward despite their best efforts (though there’s regrettably no mention of Albert Hammond Jr.’s proclivity for whipping his testicles out as a party gag), Interpol slowly wade toward wider recognition, and DFA’s James Murphy feuds with anyone who has the misfortune of collaborating with him.
Having previously directed the 2012 documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits that was supposed to be LCD Soundsystem frontman Murphy’s final curtain call (10 years later, they’re still out playing shows that turn out to be Omicron super-spreader events), it’s clear the duo are hell-bent on keeping Murphy’s image relatively appealing. While a segment detailing his obsessive perfectionism driving then-burgeoning band The Rapture to insanity certainly isn’t flattering, Goodman’s book makes it clear that the dude is kind of known as a pompous narcissist among his colleagues. There’s no denying the mastery of his music, but had the documentary leaned into Murphy’s enduring reputation as an embittered jerk, it could have easily painted as fascinating a portrait of a combative genius as Goodman’s book did. But if the directorial duo weren’t able to do that in their actual James Murphy doc 10 years ago, I suppose the chances were slim they would achieve it this time around.
By the time I actually managed to move to New York after graduating from a SUNY in the Hudson Valley, it was already clear I was moving into the desiccated corpse of what was once a robust cultural scene. Working at a shitty thrift store in Williamsburg, I was among the ruins of arguably the last vestige of the Brooklyn music scene chronicled in the film’s final act. Walking a few blocks West from work would bring me to the East River waterfront, where venues 285 Kent, Death by Audio and Glasslands closed three years earlier to make way for Vice offices. Ironically, the Vice Studios logo precedes Meet Me in the Bathroom’s opening credits—the same force that aided in destroying these landscapes now gets to market off of the nostalgia we all feel for it, which feels particularly insidious when there’s no real semblance of a cohesive music scene in our city at the moment. (But hey, that’s a whole other documentary. But who knows—pandemic notwithstanding, we might just be in a precursory state of smoldering artistic intention, building behind closed doors and awaiting an audience starved for talent. Then whenever that movement is inevitably quashed, Vice (or some other media conglomerate) will surely have fodder for a new documentary—one I’ll actually get to criticize and comment upon as someone who was “there.”
Director: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace
Release Date: January 24, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.