Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Artifact [film review]

Artifact originally started off as a document of the recording of 30 Seconds To Mars' third album - pretty standard stuff that wouldn't attract much interest beyond the alt rock band's fan base. What ultimately emerged was a fascinating David versus Goliath exposé of the music industry that will appeal to a much wider audience, revealing the band's ugly battle against an unfair and outdated business model that has been screwing over artists since the industry began. Actor and 30 Seconds To Mars frontman Jared Leto directed Artifact under the pseudonym of "Bartholomew Cubbins" (the name of a Dr. Seuss character) and the film took home this TIFF's Blackberry People's Choice Documentary Award. The recognition rather surprised me, not because the film isn't worthy, but because the award is based on voting from ticket holders of a film's screenings. I saw Artifact's second of three TIFF showings the afternoon after its world premiere and the upper balcony section at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema was only about one quarter full (mind you, the two-tiered Bloor balcony seating area is quite large).

Only a small portion of the documentary features any biographical information about the group (also including drummer and Jared's brother, Shannon, and guitarist Tomo Milicevic...any mentions of "Leto" hereafter will be referring to Jared) and the many hours of footage shot of the third album's L.A. recording sessions with producer Flood. That album's eventual title, This Is War, reflects the contentious legal battle between the band and their recording label (Virgin/EMI) that comprises most of Artifact's content. The protracted legal conflict began when the band asked to re-negotiate their contract, as their first two albums had sold almost six million copies combined and the band was somehow still in debt to the label. Virgin/EMI declined to restructure the deal and ended up suing the band for $30 million in 2008 for breach of contract when they failed to deliver their third album. Where did the $30 million figure come from? Aside from the label (who won't say), no one seems to know, but that number is too much of a coincidence and one has to assume it's some sort of clumsily conceived figure at least partly chosen for its symbolism. The lawsuit drags out for over 200 days, during which the stress can be seen on Leto and his bandmates as they take meetings with Virgin/EMI, their management (headed up by legendary manager Irving Azoff), and try to create This Is War, which they're financing themselves. Best line of the film: Leto threatens to drag his feet on handing in the album, saying they'll "Chinese Democracy this motherfucker". 

Easy-to-digest graphics helpfully illustrate the warped accounting practices and profit sharing structures of the music industry, explaining the one-sided business relationship almost all newer acts toil under. Interviews with a number of industry figures add extra insight into the dire state of the business, with artists like Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and System Of A Down's Serj Tankian helping to represent the artist's perspective outside of the focal band. Enlightening first-hand accounts from former Virgin/EMI executives also aid in giving a more well-rounded picture of how the litigation was handled from the label's end, as well as discussing the purchase of Virgin/EMI by a UK equity firm that further complicated the lawsuit. 

Leto makes an engaging main subject who I developed a new respect for with his band's principled stand against a long-entrenched system of greed. Several times, Leto questions whether or not the system is too big to fight, but the band refuses to cave. I wasn't very familiar with 30 Seconds To Mars before watching Artifact, only hearing a song or two that hadn't inspired me enough to explore them any further. Like I'm sure many have, I partially dismissed the group as another vanity side project from an actor, and we all know the dubious track record of those. Leto's musical credibility also took a hit with me when he released an extremely creepy video last year of himself dressed as Kurt Cobain while playing Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea". Truthfully, the 30 Seconds To Mars music heard in the film hasn't turned me into a fan, but I came away from Artifact with an appreciation of Leto's passion and dedication to his musical pursuits. It seems to be his focus right now and I was struck by the fact there was hardly even a mention in the documentary that he acts - the only acknowledgements of it are when he's recognized for his film work by fans on the streets in New York City and Miami.  

Artifact is an eye-opening film that further reinforces the shady reputation of the music business via the engrossing story of one cog in the machine. 30 Seconds To Mars eventually settled their legal matter by signing a more favourable deal with Virgin/EMI, which included a clause allowing them to release Artifact. Perhaps some things never change, however - as the last scene before the credits reveals, they're still fighting to get their fair share from the label.

Rating: A