Review: The Chemical Brothers – ‘Don’t Think’

Dont Think1

The argument against the live integrity of electronic music has often left acts like The Chemical Brothers with their backs against the wall. Suspicions over the supposed organic authenticity of performances can often overshadow the real experience people turn out in their tens of thousands to share at the mercy of these extraordinary shows.

Which is what separates digital genres from traditional, meat’n’spuds bands. The mere sight of fader-fiddling MacBook jockeys pressing play on pre-programmed sound sequences mightn’t ever be enough for some to match the customary physicality and stage craft of guitarists and the like, but it’s meant that dance groups have always had to innovate across every possible facet of visible entertainment to ensure the excitement of their music translates as well in person as any old band’s would.

English duo The Chemical Brothers are a renowned species in this arena. Their long-running success as pioneers of the big beat scene has afforded them a famed visual accompaniment to their live performance, but because they lack the human element of an MC’s bravado or focal points of live instrumentation it’s one that television broadcasts have never been to do adequate justice to.

Enter Adam Smith, the Chems’ long time graphical collaborator who took on the task of committing the spectacle to celluloid at Japan’s Fuji Rock festival. His direction, backed by nearly twenty years of unofficial ‘Brotherhood, aimed to convert the hallucinogenic hysteria of being there into something that could be experienced from the relative refuge of the home cinema screen.

Smith doesn’t simply replicate BBC festival coverage either, avoiding the overuse of swooping crane shots and all too familiar angles. Instead he sticks cameras in the thick of the 50,000 strong mass along with an instruction to thwart gum-chomping lens staredowns and it’s this preservation of the fourth wall that maintains such a spiritual sincerity throughout the film.

He captures the breathless spirit of shoddy, camera phone gig footage with sublime clarity and intercuts it with an optical gala even the combined efforts of Pixar and the most potent of substance dabbling would struggle to emulate.

The location is no accident either. Although informed of their permission to film at short notice, it’s hard to imagine the same measurement of genuine awe and purity being projected from a crowd anywhere else in the world. It’s the perfect audience for the Brothers to corrupt with their otherworldly vision, as innocent, wondering faces are met with imagery seemingly conceived in the grey matter of a twisted alternate dimension.

Aesthetically it’s utter bananas from the beginning, the stuff nightmares and chemically-aided dreams are made of. An array of freakish faces accompanies a smidgen of ‘Setting Sun‘ while the flickering appearance of a lip-syncing clown probably didn’t do a lot to set the more stimulated hearts at ease. One scene shot using the dizzying ‘camera-harnessed-to-the-subject’ technique shows an attendee stalked through the festival grounds by the make-up garnished grin to disturbing effect.

It’s not all chopped up horror stock footage though. Lengthy durations are blissed-out sieges on the senses with the likes of holographic figures being beamed overhead, CGI stallions galloping about and ‘Believe‘s robotic mascot seen pacing around the catering facilities. All over the field little Chemical motifs crop up while the glazed retinas blinking skyward reflect little else but a glint of a galaxy far, far away.

Then there’s the soundtrack. Deary me, what a soundtrack. It if weren’t for the quality of Don’t Think‘s musical content all of the big money SFX would be meaningless dressing and it’s because the songs hold up consistently that the sights for dilated eyes fortunately never overshadow them. Over more than an hour the Chems masterfully weave a techno tapestry, drawing from their terrifying canon of thumping house staples and club classics.

The transitions are ear-wateringly smooth, teasing with give-away samples of forthcoming tracks before detonating them into their fully realised forms. ‘Star Guitar‘ mushroom-clouds into life at one point, eliciting a response only ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl‘s quivering lead-in note matches for pure excitement. Elsewhere the towering ‘Escape Velocity‘, though only briefly aired here, makes a damned worthy case for their more recent output.

There’s so much to distinguish this from similarly-intentioned releases like last year’s World’s On Fire by their ’90s beat brethren The Prodigy. The crowd shots aren’t sullied by fist fights, fires or mud-clodding louts for one, and Smith hasn’t the need to rely on brash edits to compensate for anything the Chems lack from static viewpoints.

He never seeks to establish an atmosphere of confrontation, the setting alone assures that. But the overall feel of Don’t Think leans further toward soft-centred, brain-massaging psychedelia than the acidic laser beatdowns already out there. Gentle waves over snorting smash cuts. It’s more subtle, more elegant and as a result at times even more unsettling. Don’t Think triumphs because it’s able to draw you into a realm so far removed and eye-widening that you forget you’re watching it on a screen. Yet you know its cinematic power couldn’t have been experienced any other way.

(Daniel Robinson)

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