There’s a montage early on in Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s documentary “Meet Me in the Bathroom” that is bound to give any geriatric millennial pause. The year is 1999. It’s New Year’s Eve in New York City. President Bill Clinton is speaking on television, full of optimism for the new century, while doomsday preppers stock up on ammo in anticipation of the Y2K bug plunging the world into a technological dark age. With the Twin Towers looming peacefully in the background and nary a cell phone in sight, five Manhattanites barely out of their teens are poised to emerge as the saviors of rock and roll, which as far as anyone knows will continue to occupy the center of popular music for years to come. Was that really that long ago? Were we ever so young?
Offering a vivid time capsule of New York rock culture at the turn of the millennium, Southern and Lovelace’s film explores the early years of the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem and others as they stumbled their way from ramshackle clubs and rooftop parties to festival stages and breathless press coverage. Drawn entirely from archival footage, concert clips, home movies and contemporaneous interviews, the film is uninterested in offering a beginners’ guide to the scene’s bands, nor any after-the-fact context, instead piecing together an experiential collage of primary sources that tries to replicate what it might have felt like to rub shoulders with Albert Hammond Jr. while drinking a warm PBR in some smoky LES dive. If it’s sometimes a little rough around the edges and not always structurally coherent, well, the same was true of these bands.
Based on Lizzy Goodman’s book, “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011,” the documentary takes on a more limited time frame, mostly spanning the years 1999-2004. Though acts like TV on the Radio, the Moldy Peaches, Liars and the Rapture are given their moments, the film turns its brightest spotlights on the scene’s biggest initial exports. We spend plenty of time with Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, who details her evolution from a shy Jersey girl playing acoustic guitar at open mic nights into a howling banshee flinging herself recklessly across club stages. We get a thorough introduction to James Murphy, a socially-awkward studio engineer convinced he’s “wasted the first thirty years of [his] life,” who learns to channel his own insecurities into LCD Soundsystem’s irony-drenched dance music. We hear dour Interpol singer Paul Banks describe slogging through self-financed tours in half-empty venues, in stark counterpoint to the overnight successes of so many of his peers.
Naturally, the lion’s share of attention is lavished on the scene’s biggest and best band, the Strokes. Their rapid ascent was treated like a mini-Beatlemania in some quarters, and the early-years footage assembled here makes it easy to remember why. It wasn’t just that they were cool, good-looking, and emerged out of the gate with a debut that sounded like a greatest-hits album. It was also that few groups of any era have made being in a rock band seem like so much fun. Perpetually drunken, vaguely homoerotic, and yet somehow oddly innocent, they projected a tangible Lost Boys energy.
The film faces one major obstacle here, in that its most magnetic subject is also its least forthcoming: Strokes songwriter and frontman Julian Casablancas. The son of an infamous modelling agent blessed with perfect rockstar looks and a gift for offhand melodies, Casablancas is a tough nut to crack. There’s a faint echo of Kurt Cobain in his visible discomfort with the band’s sudden fame – “if I heard about a band like us, I’d think they were assholes,” he quips after listing the ways the Strokes have been described in the press – yet he seems less a tortured artist than a wearily bemused one. Equal parts aloof rich kid and soft-hearted sentimentalist, he’s never less than fascinating, but the film never quite figures him out.
If Casablancas is the film’s reluctant hero, it eventually finds a villain of sorts in singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, portrayed here as something of an all-around bad influence whose arrival in the Strokes’ social circle soured some of their good vibes. There are plenty of bad vibes to go around, though, and Karen O is given room to explain how lonely she felt as a woman in the rock and roll boys’ club, even before she started to notice creepy concert photographers angling their cameras up her skirt while she performed. The film is less attuned to matters of race and class, and it’s hard not to smirk a little when the same people who previously described Brooklyn as a wonderland of cheap rents suddenly start to complain about gentrification. One of the few major Black voices in this largely white scene, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe describes the guilt he felt when he told his Nigerian immigrant parents that he wanted to move to New York to become an artist – if others were dealing with tensions like these, they don’t mention it.
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” isn’t terribly interested in dissecting What It All Meant, but revisiting this period twenty years later, one notices how much perspectives have changed. To the critics who found themselves inventing new superlatives to foist upon them, these bands carried the hope that the culture could be steered away from the slick teen pop and numbskull nu-metal then dominating the charts, and back to the rawness of punk. The bigger acts from this scene would spawn plenty of imitators, but today the whole NY rock revival looks less like the future of music than the raucous last gasp of a fading paradigm. Even at the time, hip-hop was already well on its way to replacing rock as the dominant sound of young America, and it’s hard to imagine how a gang of retro-minded CBGB acolytes could have slowed its progress. Nor should they have.
Of course, no one in the film was particularly concerned about any of this back then, and the music they produced remains as exciting as ever. Nearly everyone featured here is still alive and well and making music – which is more than you can say for most rock docs – and as these bands all creep toward the middle-aged nostalgia circuit, it’s poignant to remember how brightly they burned back in the full flush of youth. We’ll all miss the good old days, someday.