The Meet Me In The Bathroom Movie Omits Too Much, But What’s In There Is Mesmerizing
Where do you stand on the myth that the New York rock revolution vanquished nu-metal and pop-punk? How do you feel about the fact that the Strokes sparked a raucous new wave of bands in the city that, in turn, inspired a media frenzy? How important to your coming of age were Is This It and Fever To Tell and “House Of Jealous Lovers” and “Losing My Edge”? Where on the spectrum between insufferable self-indulgence and page-turning intrigue would you place Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 oral history of that New York scene?
Your answers to these questions will inevitably shape your perspective on the new documentary based on Goodman’s book. The film, also titled Meet Me In The Bathroom, makes its debut in Los Angeles tonight at the Fonda, with a New York premiere event to follow this Sunday at Webster Hall. (More screenings will follow in both cities starting Nov. 4, and a one-night-only screening event in theaters nationwide on Nov. 8. It will be available on Showtime on Nov. 25.) Meet Me In The Bathroom is directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, the duo that helmed Shut Up And Play The Hits, the concert film and documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s farewell show at Madison Square Garden. In a sense, that grandiose event marked the final dissipation of the initial street-level explosion chronicled here.
Goodman’s book meticulously tracked the beer-soaked, drug-fueled, hard-partying New York rock scene of the early 21st century, tracing an arc from the flameout of the glamorously skuzzy pre-Walkmen rockers Jonathan Fire*Eater in the late ’90s to the arrival of preppy and erudite Vampire Weekend in the late aughts. The movie narrows its timeline and its focus, which thankfully spares us all the scene-setting details about the dive bars and dance nights that helped lay the groundwork for these bands. I don’t begrudge former nightlife mavens from reliving their glory days, and the book makes a convincing case that these venues and parties fomented the community that rallied around these bands, but nobody’s watching this movie to learn about that stuff. We’re watching it to see iconic rock bands in their prime.
Meet Me In The Bathroom serves up a nonstop torrent of such imagery, including lots of early footage of its main characters both on and offstage. As condensed origin stories of the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol play out — the latter band hustling hard to replicate the other groups’ more organic rise — we get to see figures like Julian Casablancas, Karen O, and Paul Banks looking like babies and, to varying degrees, transforming into rock stars before our eyes. As someone whose senior year of high school was defined by Is This It, this class of bands always loomed as larger-than-life figures for me, so it’s stunning to witness a pre-fame Banks fumbling through open mic night or a young Karen O lounging in a T-shirt and jeans. The glimpses of early performances, when hype was just beginning to build, are a stirring window into a moment just before this loosely aligned local scene blew up into a global phenomenon — the kinds of gigs that fuel “I was there” bragging rights from James Murphy types.
Part of the appeal of last year’s behemoth Beatles documentary Get Back was that it preserved the Fab Four in their youth, unmarred by the inevitable decline of age. Meet Me In The Bathroom includes lots of voiceovers from its key players, but we never see them as they are now. Maybe that forever-young approach is agist, but rock ‘n’ roll is a young person’s game — and if the movie denies us the sight of these former golden gods slumping into middle age, it goes to great lengths to show its central figures growing weathered and jaded in real time. (Footage from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” video is put to great use in this regard.)
The loss-of-innocence material often connects even when following familiar music-doc beats, but it hits harder in some cases than others. It’s easy to empathize with Karen O as she faces endless objectification and misogyny and finds herself destroying her body as an extension of her outrageous rock-star persona. Even if the Strokes strike you as privileged assholes, it’s painful to watch their gang-like camaraderie slip away when subjected to the pressures of fame — in part due to the influence of Albert Hammond Jr.’s drug buddy Ryan Adams, who is confronted by Hammond’s bandmates in one of the most memorable scenes of both book and movie. These people are chewed up by the music business, and their success helps to sanitize the same neighborhoods they once enlivened. Compared to that kind of drama, the leak of Interpol’s Antics on file sharing services doesn’t carry the same emotional weight.
Even with the movie’s more limited scope, Meet Me In The Bathroom remains a fairly wide-ranging portrait of intersecting scenes, set against a backdrop of broader cultural events like the Y2K scare, the 9/11 attacks (I was not prepared for the intensity of the footage), and Brooklyn gentrification. It begins with the Moldy Peaches — the twee, foul-mouthed darlings of anti-folk hub the Sidewalk Cafe — and ends with the dance-punk innovators of DFA, going deep into indie-rock lifer James Murphy’s discovery of dance music, his eventual partnership with producer Tim Goldsworthy, and the rise and fall of their relationship with the Rapture.
In keeping with the sweep of history, the Peaches kinda disappear from the frame after opening for the Strokes’ first UK tour, whereas the DFA stuff takes up more and more airtime as the movie progresses, sometimes tediously so. Still, Lovelace and Southern’s treatment of Murphy is a lot more bearable than in Shut Up And Play The Hits, which matched thrilling concert footage with shiftless, self-important scenes depicting Murphy in the aftermath. In a movie that tends to glamorize its protagonists, the DFA maestro readily paints himself as an antisocial jerk; LCD Soundsystem is pitched not as an important band so much as Murphy’s way of finding community and getting comfortable in his own skin. He’s one of the only people whose life feels like it’s on the upswing when the story cuts off in the mid-2000s.
Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to cast a wide net, Meet Me In The Bathroom might have worked better as a multi-part limited series on some streaming service. A half-decade of sprawling, interconnected music scenes can’t be adequately documented in under two hours, so inevitably some bands get short shrift. A title card at the end of the film lists Liars and TV On The Radio among the main characters, but they’re only really featured in passing as the directors illustrate the cultural migration from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I don’t remember any of the Liars even speaking, though we do get killer performance footage from a Brooklyn parking lot gig. Other artists included in the book are cut out altogether, like the National and the Walkmen — bands that arguably made better music than many of this movie’s stars but were more peripheral to the groundswell being chronicled here, especially since the story trails off around the time “The Rat” and Alligator were entering into the world. Ultimately, this movie revolves around the Strokes, who instigated a movement in their city and struggled under the weight of the ensuing fervor. Don’t forget who wrote the song that gave this project its name.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at these rich kids in their rumpled suits and ties, especially when they’re being held up as the saviors who rescued the listening public from dreadfully uncool rock music. (A brief look at Julian Casablancas accepting an MTV award late in the movie feels like a callback to early shots of Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 receiving similar honors, but the only rock band I saw hitting #1 around the time was Nickelback.) Anyone skeptical of New Yorkers’ self-importance will rightfully scoff at the reading of Walt Whitman’s ode to Manhattan set to a montage of NYC luminaries from Lou Reed to Debbie Harry to ODB. As a lifelong Midwesterner, I chafe against this kind of Big Apple self-adulation. It would be a lot more obnoxious, though, if the music wasn’t so good. We can argue about whether these bands were as important in the grand scheme as the legend suggests, but if they were ever important to you, Meet Me In The Bathroom offers a mesmerizing look back at that moment — a portrait of people who, though hailed as impossibly cool, were inescapably human.
Meet Me In The Bathroom has its Los Angeles premiere tonight at the Fonda, with a New York premiere to follow this Sunday, 10/30 at Webster Hall. It will screen regularly at the IFC Center in New York and the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles starting 11/4. A one-night-only nationwide screening event is set for 11/8. It will be streaming on Showtime starting 11/25.