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Doc NYC Review: Jared Leto's 'Artifact' Is A Compelling Portrait Of A Music Industry Under Water

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
November 12, 2012 5:47 PM
14 Comments
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It's sort of hard to sympathize with one of the world's most handsome actors, who regularly moonlights as a Goth prince rock star, even when his spiteful record label decides to sue him and his band for the whopping sum of $30 million. This is the fate that befell Jared Leto and his shockingly popular pop rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, as they were about to begin work on their third album, This Is War. "Artifact," which recently won the BlackBerry People's Choice Documentary Award at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and was directed by Leto under a Seussian pseudonym, is something of an accomplishment, not just because of its surprisingly sturdy filmmaking but also because it turns Leto into, if not a likable center for a documentary, then at least a compelling guide through the current state of the music industry, in all its wretched decay.

"Artifact" started off as a standard issue behind-the-scenes documentary of the band's album but it became infinitely more interesting when, on the eve of recording with veteran producer Flood (responsible for some of the most beloved albums in recent memory, including Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral and The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), they were sued by their record label, EMI, for $30 million, mostly for wanting a fairer new contract and more control.

What follows is an occasionally agonizing, occasionally thrilling documentary in which the entire fucked-up state of the record industry is condensed into the story of one band and their own struggles. With helpful, "Inside Job"-esque graphics, Leto breaks down the ways that bands, even colossally successful ones like 30 Seconds to Mars (that have huge international audiences), can come out of a lengthy, successful tour owing their record label (literally) millions of dollars. (Or worse.)

Leto interviews various principles involved in the legal wrangling, including those from within the record label that dealt with the lawsuit. What's telling is that all of them have since been fired due to a corporate buyout that then begat, in the human centipede that is the music industry, another costly buyout. They admit that their practices were shady and that the band was mostly trying to do something that was fair, but that unscrupulousness and greed kept them from acknowledging it at the time. He also interviews various other luminaries from the music scene, including other musicians (from bands like Linkin Park, System of a Down, and OK Go), various music journalists and (just for good measure) neuro-physicist Daniel Levitin, author of a book called "This Is Your Brain On Music," who claims that human beings' two most primal needs are sex and music.

Occasionally Leto throws in smatterings of biographical detail, which is important since his brother Shannon plays drums in the band (Tomo Milicevic is the third member and plays lead guitar) and it only sort of comes across as hopelessly self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as it actually is. Maybe it's because Leto and has bandmates (and Flood) are so affably goofy – they rarely bicker and are never seen drinking excessively, doing drugs, throwing furniture out of hotel room windows, or generally taking part in the behavior rock stars are most known for. Leto, for his part, is almost supernaturally sincere, placing an utmost importance in the quality of the new album and his righteous indignation at the state of the industry. Also: he has really dreamy eyes and wears old timey pajamas like you'd see on Dick Van Dyke and has some great one liners, like when he threatens to shelve the record altogether and, "'Chinese Democracy' this motherfucker."

As the movie wears along, it becomes structured around the days since the lawsuit was filed, with title cards that read "x days since lawsuit," which makes it feel a little bit like the romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer." The general sensation of a romantic comedy continues, with lots of bitter, passionate phone calls and existential walks along the beach (Leto draws giant figures in the sand, like Tyler Durden in the novel "Fight Club" but not in the movie, which Leto costarred in). Hearts break and are broken. Communication breaks down. At some point it just becomes a full on romantic drama, with the central question of authorship and fairness replaced by a single nagging question – Will Leto and EMI get back together? Or are they broken up for good?

Well, since everyone knows that the album came out (or at least have watched 30 Seconds to Mars perform with Kayne West in fuzzy YouTube footage), some of the suspense has been robbed, but it's still surprisingly compelling stuff, even if it goes on for way too long and eventually becomes whiny and repetitive. It's not easy to root for Leto, mostly because of the pompousness, but as a beacon of sharply focused indignation, it's hard not to encourage his feisty fight for music industry justice. Problematically, 30 Seconds to Mars, as a band, are completely blank – their music and performances lack character and imagination, which might be the movie's most crippling fault. For all of their talk of fighting the system and their agonizing war against the corporate monoliths, they are a band whose sound remains utterly populist and commercial. Their song of war becomes hard to sing along to. [B] 

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14 Comments

  • Thidwick Moses | June 9, 2014 12:26 AMReply

    This is such a badly-structured and poorly written review. It reveals more about the reviewer than about the documentary. The documentary, by contrast, was well-structured, well-paced and spare. For example, there was a reason for why band member's biographical details were introduced - to explain what was at stake for them personally. There was a reason for including the views of the neurosurgeon - to explain why music is integral to the human experience. This then helps the film-makers make the point that commerce, undertaken poorly, could place barriers between artists and potential listeners and thereby narrow what music becomes available to us. I do appreciate reviewers being frank in their opinion on things both central and peripheral to the film they are reviewing - the personalities involved, the level of talent of those personalities in their other domains, et cetera - but only when this is done with wit and without the reviewer's feelings of inadequacy taking primary place.

  • Donna | November 17, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    Who the f**k is Drew Taylor and why is he doing a review when it is obvious he knows sh*t about music or anything else. 30 Seconds to Mars - This is War is one of the greatest albums of all time. He is to focused on Jared's good looks and does not want to give him credit for his achievements.The fact that Jared had the ba**s to stand up for what he believes in - is something someone who has no achievements is jealous of. It is not Jared's fault that is talented, intelligent, ambitious and beautiful and you have none of those qualities. Since you are not able to review someone's work unbiasedly I suggest you turn to a career that doesn't involve any form of art since you have no soul and cannot appreciate it.

  • Jolieme | November 15, 2012 11:05 AMReply

    Well now that was a very shallow and bitchy review.What wonderful unbiased journalismj. I love how you managed to skip merrily over the important issues to focus on old timey pajamas and dreamy eyes and Jared had the cheek to come across as sincere ,would you have preferred if he came across as shifty because that would defeat the point of the entire documentary,don't you think?What a pity if someone skimmed over your review and decided that Artifact wasn't an important documentary for young up and coming artists to watch.

  • Bogart | November 28, 2012 7:16 PM

    Praise the Lord! Why is it that every time there's a review of a Hungry-Twilight-TeenyBopper film, the comments sections are invaded by oblivious fans without any sense of cynicism..? You're just meat for the corporate grinder... so 'shut the fuck up' until you learn a little about life.

  • lord | November 15, 2012 11:25 AM

    oh shut the fuck up.

  • Kat | November 14, 2012 3:57 AMReply

    Jeeez.. you obviously have absoloutely no idea what you are actually talking about. But thats ok we just can not all be cool ;)

  • Angel Face | November 13, 2012 9:55 PMReply

    Obviously if music sounds good, more people will like it. Don't know what your own taste in music is but if most ppl don't even appreciate it then its not Jared Leto's fault you have a different taste in music and part a minority. 30 Seconds To Mars inspires more people than any band you would deem as "inspiring" and the truth is that your lack of sympathy is your own fault and not any of the terms you described above.

  • NoFar | November 13, 2012 4:02 AMReply

    Wow! Insult much? Wonder if you hate Jared Leto so much, why bother to go and see his movie. Sounded like a torture for you anyway. Or was it to just have something to whine about? It seems to me you hate this man mainly because he is too handsome to the degree that it is very hard to have sympathized with. Now this is a new kind of prejudice or what? He deserves to have gone through whatever he has gone through because he is the worlds' most handsome man? Problematically, your article is completely blank – your writing lacks decency, humanity and professionalism which might be your most crippling fault.
    Hey! Right back at you!

  • Alexandra Thomas-Jones | November 13, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    Well it MUST be a good documentary if you can't bring yourself to actually insult it, while insulting everything about it. I'm sorry you were given this terrible assignment to view this documentary by the awful Jared Leto and his horrible band. I don't suppose there was anyone else around who could do the job? You just had to take one for the team? What a hero.

    The truth is, Artifact is an intelligent, compelling and entertaining film with sincere bandmembers who make good music.

  • sdcbnj | November 13, 2012 12:26 AMReply

    This sounds compelling, but 30 Seconds To Mars are a terrible band.

  • sxxlain | November 12, 2012 9:05 PMReply

    i wanna see this.

  • N. J. | November 12, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    Yes, Jared Leto is beautiful. Nothing new there. But that seems to be so troubling for most men that they instantly hate him which in turn clouds their judgement completely.
    You are a pretty good example...

  • wie | November 12, 2012 6:51 PMReply

    Jared Leto is the worst fucking human being alive. I only have heard horror stories from everyone who has worked with him in every aspect of the music industry.

  • jimbo | November 12, 2012 6:20 PMReply

    lasted thirty minutes in it during toronto. steve albini summed this up ten years ago in a ten page essay. this probably is the most dated analysis of the record industry, novel only in that this critic and leto himself these issues are fresh and current.
    and that the music is beyond crippling certainly doesnt help.

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