AKA THIS FILM IS STRANGELY AWESOME
There are two distinct scenes in Artifact – a new documentary about US pop band 30 Seconds To Mars – where it feels as though the film could truly become an exposé. This desire to expose is a claim the film makes often. Director and star Jared Leto is repeatedly depicted on camera in a state of intense frustration about the injustices of commercial music. For minutes on end, he argues and cusses into the phone. If one were to edit out these scenes of him on the phone (and, perhaps, the scenes of the band high-fiving), there would not be much left of Artifact to watch.
Yet it is one phone conversation in particular that I found captivating. Leto cruises through LA in an SUV, speaking to his manager Irving Azoff. Not much comes of this brief chat: the band’s label is still suing them (for 30 million dollars, no less), negotiations are still slow and unfruitful, chaos still reigns supreme in the American music business. At the end of this conversation, just as Leto is about to speak, Azoff signs off abruptly. Leto then turns to the camera and says:
‘I was just about to ask him how much that call cost me.’
It is was at this exact point I first started to pay real attention. Here Leto is depicted at rock bottom. He is questioning everything around him, allies and enemies alike. If this moment were channeled through the remainder of the film and allowed to guide its narrative, Artifact would have been an astute and invaluable music documentary, irrelevant of one’s opinion of the band. Unfortunately, this is not to be.
The film opens in the Los Angeles of success fantasies and Entourage. 30 Seconds To Mars have made a breakout second album, toured the world and are now at home (another mansion), wondering where the album royalties are. To their horror, they find that despite sales of over a million copies of 2005’s A Beautiful Lie album they remain in debt to their record company EMI. Trying to escape this debt, they break contract, EMI sues, and the story begins. This lawsuit becomes the center of the story, its progress used as chapter headings to punctuate the film. From ‘Lawsuit Day 1’, the viewer is delivered into the world of commercial bureaucracy. This is not a band doco so much. This is about the decline of the American recording industry. It’s very clear. Leto sounds this note throughout.
Artifact strives to present all this decline as a contemporary phenomena but what seethes out of every frame is the sense that this business has always been about a type of moral decline. Its amorality and ruthlessness is seen again and again. It is historicized by a selection of talking heads: authors Daniel Levitin and Neil Strauss, industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, former record execs and fellow musicians. We see animated infographics and figures and plain open discussion of all this. ‘How can there be no new model by now?’ vents Leto at one point, like the last person on Earth to see the drop coming. Everyone around him shrugs the same well-rehearsed shrug.
Still confused, the band push on. They hire Flood (producer of U2, The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails), build a studio in the mansion and begin work on a third album. As the creative process wanes and slows under the legal/emotional pressure, the drama of the film winds and winds. Will the band complete the recording? Why? Where is this record headed? In one scene Flood speaks to the camera of how unusual the process is; this making of a record without any real commercial interference or destination. With this in mind, Leto and his brother (the drummer) frequently take to scenic locations to brood over their situation. As they stand there worrying aloud, LA sprawls out like fairy lights beneath them. It becomes almost impossible to not see how these problems of theirs are part of a wider fabric, a broader decline that is forever kept in the distance, out of focus and out of the viewer’s way.
It needn’t have been so. The second moment within Artifact where I really felt something came during the interviews. One of the talking heads featured is fellow musician Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. Putting a friendly famous face on what could have been a boring account of exactly how major labels bilk their clients, Bennington is plainspoken and assured. He describes recording contracts as, ‘like legislation,’ where all of the devil’s work is in the details. Say, a piece of legislation is passed. Yet sliding through the framework of governance with this new policy is a raft of smaller laws that are typically self-serving and devious, that’s a recording contract in Bennington’s opinion. We, the audience, actually see a recording contract at one point. It’s a monstrous document. We are told that hidden within it are every type of ham-slicing exemption and tariff that, over time, could erode millions of dollars of artist revenue down to zero and beyond. This is how a private equity CEO like the mysterious Guy Hands (mentioned and cited in the film) can take the reigns of EMI and The Beatles catalogue and why someone independently rich and famous like Jared Leto submits to this. These tiny pieces of hidden legal architecture are the means by which corporations indenture their artists. In these sentences is the full exertion of their power and dominance.
In my daydreams, the whole film could have joined one moment to the other. For a fleeting second, I was sure Leto, in his anger, was going to drag the whole curtain back. I desperately wanted him to swish his beautiful hair aside and say:
‘Hang on, the way we’re being fucked by EMI is the way the whole world is being fucked by bureaucracy. We’re letting democracy get pushed down the fucking drain by a union of elites using nothing more than pieces of paper and coded language. Fuck that.’
That’s exactly how he would have said it too. (You’ll see.) On camera he’s far more charismatic that I expected, just the person to sell this idea to the world and come off cool and successful in the doing. He’s an actor – something the film is at pains to completely ignore – he could have played this part. But in the end, what Leto wants is to play his emo-FM-radio-rock. He has responsibilities to his brother and his band. He has a career and fans to attend to.
With all this pragmatism foregrounded in the third act, the film itself becomes another bargaining chip in his war with EMI and we bizarrely see this play out onscreen. I won’t spoil the film’s ending but very little of any real merit eventuates. Leto is quite brave to present the story’s anti-climax so faithfully. It’s quite a deflating movie, taken as a whole. I can say he does what I imagine many of us would have done in similar circumstance. He has a small win, shakes his head and walks off into a life that, while not ideal, is still tolerable. He chooses his own individual happiness and the happiness of those around him over a larger battle, certain that he can’t overpower a group of anonymous strangers, strangers who feel perennially more organized and callous. He sides with his art because it’s easier to control. In all, Artifact is a curious film. It appears to be about a year in the life of a spurned believer, a year in which a fairly naive and disconnected person glimpses the everyday status quo very clearly. And having seen all this? Jared Leto lowers his sunglasses and carries on.