Artifact (Cubbins, 2012)

Given the target audience’s love for Jared Leto and Thirty Seconds to Mars, the built in animosity towards record (or any) executives, and the universal love of David versus Goliath stories, Artifact ought to have been a slam dunk. It ends up instead being the equivalent of of a pair of free throws. It scores points but hardly brings the audience to its feet.

It is probably not fair to director Bartholomew Cubbins to compare Artifact to two-time Oscare winner Barbara Kopple’s Shut Up and Sing, though I did think repeatedly of the irony that while I cared less about the Dixie Chicks to begin with, I cared more about them after the movie than before. I can’t really say the same about Thirty Seconds to Mars, because while the film is a celebration of their music it rarely probes into its creation (beyond the fact that it was done under the shadow of a lawsuit) and is surprisingly stingy with insights about or even extended footage into the creation of This is War.

Part of the problem may be that Artifact either tries to do too much or can’t decide where its central focus lies. We get brief biographies of Jared and Shannon, some studio footage, and an educational primer on how and why the record business screws the artist (“I’ve never heard of a record label that doesn’t screw the artist,” Bob Leftsetz says, “that’s the business model, to screw the artist.”). Mostly we get lots of shots of Jared on the phone with lawyers lamenting that the system is antiquated and insisting that he only wants what’s fair.

It is possible that some of this repetition is meant to vicariously communicate the omnipresence of the legal cloud hanging over him and suggest the difficulty of working under that shadow. I could and did certainly buy that, although the film seems stuck in the mode of showing rather than telling. That I got a better sense of Leto as a person during a fifteen minute Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival than I did in the movie is telling.

Finally, too, the film’s resolution, while not totally unexpected nor inconsistent with the stated goals of the artists raises a lot more questions than it answers. One person in the audience asked Leto for advice to up and coming musicians and he said to strive to do everything yourself, to be independent. That’s the mantra through most of the movie, so when the band does resign with EMI, we want, we need specifics. Why is this deal “fair”? What is fair about it? If it is fair, why does the postscript go back to claiming that EMI still claims the band owes them 1.7 million dollars?

Leto said to the audience that the advice of his independently hired producer factored heavily into his decision. Shouldn’t that come across more in the film? (The advice is in the film, but it isn’t highlighted as being anything more/other than one of many voices coming at the man in the center of the storm.) Leto also told the audience that in an ironic way he is happy they were sued since it helped give birth to a great album. It is in this point that the film is weakest. Shut Up & Sing really showed how the pressures helped forge the music. In Artifact it is almost as though the lawsuit and record are happening concurrently. The issue becomes whether the record will “see the light of day” not how it is an expression of the lives of those saying “this is war.”

For all that, the film is worth seeing, particularly if one likes art process documentaries. And the stuff about how the record industry works (or doesn’t) is truly eye-opening. It is worth noting, too, that Leto insisted to the audience that this was not the final cut of the film.

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