Alex Young is between sips of red wine when Jeff Montgomery comes by to give the director of R.E.M. by MTV an update on the screening happening twenty feet to his right behind a large, blue door. Young and his editor Dave Leopold are sitting together at a small table in Cine, prepping for a second, and eventually a third, round of questions about their film.
“How many tapes did you go through?” (1,500 give or take)
“Was there anything you didn’t get to use that you really wanted to?” (Yes. Time and story sometimes get in the way)
“How hard was it tracking people down for permission to use this stuff?” (Hard, but 90% of what they needed made it through)
Montgomery says that the movie is nearing the credits soon. R.E.M. advisor Bertis Downs appears, giving his own update to the duo. “They’re having a good time and laughing,” he says. “This is going well!”
Earlier that weekend, Downs had given Young a tour of the city R.E.M. called home. They ate soul food at Weaver D’s (“Automatic!”), visited the now iconic steeple that marks where R.E.M. played their first show, and went shopping for records at Wuxtry. Young picked up a few records from the local bands he heard about while working on the documentary and a few other local groups he just thought had interesting cover art.
“Everyone is really nice here,” Young says. “On the way down, the guy driving the shuttle just wanted to talk. All these people, when I’ve met them, they say ‘Oh! Thank you for coming!’ And you’ve got this theater here and Go Bar feels like places up in New York…”
Montgomery swings by again. The credits are about ten minutes away.
Leopold and Young aren’t watching the film tonight. They reckon they’ve seen it in full about forty times by now, not counting all of the additional material that didn’t make the cut. In addition to the documentary, they prepared hours of extra footage to be packaged with the boxset known as REMTV. In short, they know R.E.M.’s story by now.
“It’s really weird,” he says, “because you feel like you know these guys. I’ve watched and cut together so much footage of the band that you get a feel for their personalities. When we met Mike and Michael at the screening in New York, it took a second to remember that what I had was a one way experience with them. It didn’t feel like the first time we met, but it really was.”
Peals of laughter come from the theater. Young smiles at the sound.
“We didn’t set out to make a funny documentary, it just happened that way,” he says. “The world knows R.E.M as a bunch of really smart and sort of serious guys. But when you watch the interviews, you realize that they’re really smart and incredibly funny guys as well.”
In the documentary, Bill Berry can be seen making faces at Peter Buck. Michael Stipe has a few well chosen words for a prying journalist inquiring about his personal life. Mike Mills talks about being a rock star, tongue planted firmly in cheek. Even the segment on the horrific carousel of injuries that was the Monster Tour, there is a levity floating near the surface.
“You’re seeing the band as they saw themselves, presented themselves in these interviews,” says Leopold.
“We have no external narration. There’s no script that tells you what’s happening,” says Young. “It’s R.E.M.’s own words. We were really lucky to have two great expansive interviews to work with, in addition to all the extra footage that MTV had. I think it tells the story really well.”
The screening has ended and Leopold and Young are taken into the theater. The usual technical questions are asked and answered, and the duo set up what the audience is about to see next. There’s a few clips about R.E.M. and politics, followed by R.E.M.’s last performance in Athens, Greece. “Man on the Moon” begins to play and the heads in the theater begin to bob.
“Here’s a little agit for the never-believer. Here’s a little ghost for the offering…”
R.E.M. by MTV can be seen on VH1 Classic and Palladia this week. REMTV is available now at your local record place, on Amazon or via REMHQ.