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Fearless Heroes 

Documentary captures Flaming Lips essence

If you're skeptical about the redemptive power of rock & roll, Bradley Beesley's loving and yet even-handed portrayal of the Flaming Lips, The Fearless Freaks (Shout Factory, $24.95), will test the limits of your cynicism from the first frame to the last. Chronicling the rise of Norman, Oklahoma's "wondorously improbable" band, Beesley's intimate documentary — culled from 400 hours of shooting over a 15-year stretch — includes the sort of backstage footage and brutally frank interviews that only someone with access to the inner-most sanctum of his subject can provide.

Like the next door neighbor. That is how neighbors Beesley and Coyne met, the former eventually shooting early Flaming Lips music videos. The Lips embraced videos, even though their fledgling punk-band status should have made MTV and its offshoots anathema. But that is The Flaming Lips story in a nutshell, a band from whom the unexpected is expected.

Beesley chronicles the Lips' many lineup changes, the genesis of their increasingly freaky live shows, their "parking lot experiments" (culminating in Zaireeka, a four-disc set that must be played on four different CD players), and how they became a major label phenomenon. But the film excels at exposing the inner dynamics among the band members, their families, and even the Lips' devoted following.

The film centers on Wayne Coyne, the band's focal point on stage and off, and quickly dispells the notion that Coyne's oddities are LSD related. Coyne is characterized as a "pied piper," whose natural charisma makes willing followers of musicians and fans alike. But it wasn't always that way, and over the years we watch Wayne's path diverge from those of his brothers and friends (whose brutal backyard football games, boxing matches and partying begat the name Fearless Freaks), many of whom would wind up in jail or spinning their wheels in the same rundown Norman neighborhoods they grew up in. We watch Coyne grow — often through clips from home movies — from the impressionable little brother into the unselfconscious showman fronting what has become one of the world's most popular underground bands.

We also see Coyne at home, mowing his lawn in shorts and flourescent green rubber boots and chatting up the neighborhood kids. He is disarmingly humble, his self-deprecating humor a refreshing change from many successful rock & roller's inflated sense of self — "me and Michael (Ivins, the band's bassist), we can't play very well," Coyne says, "but we have other qualities that we hope are of some value to the organization."

Beesley captures the essential role that drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drodz plays in the band, as well as his crippling heroin addiction that nearly destroyed the Lips from within. Watching Drodz cook up and shoot up while calmly narrating the genesis and growth of his addiction is almost unbearable viewing, and the fact that Coyne didn't fire him adds a greyness to his character that grounds him. Did he let Drodz remain because of his integral role in the band ("Steven could play what Wayne couldn't," remarks one source), or because he knew that music and being in the band was the only tether holding Drodz together?

It may be only recently, with the release of 1999's The Soft Bulletin, that the Lips' music has caught up with and accurately reflected the emotional depth of Coyne's lyrics; the lead Lip has been bewitched by life's great quandries — life, death, love and hate — throughout the band's career.

At the site of the Long John Silver's restaurant where Coyne happily worked as a fry cook for 11 years (long into the Lips' band life), Coyne re-enacts the watershed moment that transformed his life; a robbery at gunpoint that had all the earmarks of a string of other incidents in which the staffs had been killed. On that night, three armed gunmen stormed in, terrorized the workers, and lined them up face-down on the floor.

"I just thought, 'My God, this is really how you die,'" Coyne says. "One minute you're just cooking up someone's order of French fries, and the next minute you're laying on the floor and they blow your brains out. There's no music, no significance — it's just random..."

Coyne survived, of course, and his natural ebullience has taken on virtually mythic status with the growth of the Flaming Lips' success. The Lips' shows have evolved into interactive events embraced by both punks and hippies, a testament to the honest sentiments that underlie the band's success. Among the extra features in The Fearless Freaks DVD is a lengthy segment on the production of the band's most recent stage shows, showing in intimate detail how closely band and fans have become.

As one observer notes in the film, "It's like how KISS always said, 'you are we, we are you,' but with the Flaming Lips it's really true; with KISS they're really just a bunch of big fat liars."

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