This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Pitched between the doomsday-prepping of Y2K and the existential horror of 9/11, 2000s New York was also home to another seismic change in American culture: the burgeoning indie-rock scene, where dingy clubs on the Lower East Side played home to acts like Interpol, The Strokes, The Moldy Peaches, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
That’s the hazy, deafening, beer-sticky stage on which Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (who previously directed the LCD Soundsystem doc Shut Up and Play the Hits) operate for Meet Me in the Bathroom, less an adaptation of Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 oral history of the same name than a living companion piece.
Comprised almost entirely of archival footage stitched together by new and archival voiceover interviews from many of the parties involved, including Karen O, James Murphy, Paul Banks, and more, Meet Me in the Bathroom gives you a backstage pass to this lightning-in-a-bottle moment in music history.
Is This It: The aughts gave birth to a new kind of rock star, usually borne of the idle rich kids and blue-collar post-punks of late ’90s Manhattan: creatively ambitious but socially shy, bristling against the spotlight that fame gave them even as their stars rose to heavenly heights.
It’s here that Southern and Lovelace turn the majority of their eye, Meet Me in the Bathroom chiefly concerned with the bands that rose to fame from the dark, isolated incubator that was NYC’s Lower East Side. The Moldy Peaches cheekily plink out songs in their studio apartment; Karen O develops her onstage persona into the wailing pop-punk diva she’d become; The Strokes face a meteoric rise that immediately plants the ‘future of music’ label on them, with all the pressure that entails.
(Much real estate is dedicated to footage of Julian Casablancas, The Strokes’ boy-genius frontman, shrugging and withdrawing from the weight of their stardom: he clams up and shrugs in interviews, his signature aloofness reading more as resignation.)
Their tales are largely disconnected, which is a bit formally frustrating; Southern and Lovelace wander from one band to another and back again like a drunken extrovert at a house party, making it hard to really glom onto one particular band’s journey. However, in focusing on how all of these bands respectively progressed through the most fertile years of their musical careers (1999-2004), we see not just how they changed pop culture, but how the world changed around them.
Occasionally, the filmmakers turn away from the bands to remind us that yes, we were all freaked out about Y2K and stocking MREs in wait for the coming apocalypse; or that the horrors of 9/11 turned their devil-may-care punk shrugs into a call for humanity. Most haunting is the arrival of Napster and the mp3 craze, a phenomenon that mostly rattles Murphy, a man who’s spent three decades as a sound engineer (along with a contentious but creatively fruitful collab with David Holmes) only to see the end of music as he knew it beyond the horizon; he’d channel that over-it malaise into the disco-synth beats of LCD Soundsystem.
They Don’t Love You Like I Love You: The Strokes and Murphy weren’t the only ones having trouble dealing with being ripped out of the Mercury Lounge and onto the world stage: Karen O is remarkably candid about the difficulties she faced as one of the sole women occupying this male-dominated field. Her frustration is palpable, from backstage outbursts to dismissive interviews.
Yet, late in the film, Southern and Lovelace make the very smart decision to just let the B-roll of her closeup during the shoot for the “Maps” music video play out in full: it’s a powerful statement, holding on the pained defiance in her face as she wails out those hypnotic lyrics in an assertive show of self.
What works best here is that overriding nostalgia for a time that, while no less problematic or difficult than our own, seemed simpler, both for music and the world at large. A mid-film montage feels like a subliminal serotonin surge for geriatric millennials, flashing dial-up modem sounds, Bill Clinton’s face, MySpace Tom, iPod ads, and more in there.
Rare live footage of all of these bands shows us what talented performers they were, whether in front of thousands or just plinking away in their studios. (Curiously, the filmmakers clearly overlay the studio version of “Last Nite” over live footage of The Strokes in one scene, which is more than a little jarring.)
These young kings and queens of rock served as the antidote to the rap-rock and nu-metal that topped the charts before they arrived. Though they were soon replaced with the gargantuan takeover of hip-hop as the dominant genre in American music, they forged their own melodically experimental path during their brief moment in the sun. For fans of those bands, Meet Me in the Bathroom is a nifty way to revisit those times, and the childhoods they miss.
The Verdict: The virtue and vice of Meet Me in the Bathroom lies in its singular focus: It’s a movie made by fans of the 2000s indie scene in NY, for those same fans. On the one hand, that lack of handholding is refreshing: those of us who lived in those times can swim in the nostalgic vibes of a time before iPods, before Spotify, when you could buy a record and you had to memorize it and follow that band to the ends of the earth because you put your hard-earned dollars into listening to it. (Not to mention the heat, sweat and energy of a live musical performance, something many of us haven’t experienced in years due to COVID.)
It also offers a nifty glimpse into the trials and tribulations success gave to so many artists we grew up with. On the flip side, it’s very much not a doc for neophytes, and is less than interested in holding your hand and easing you through a legible structure from beginning to end.
Vibes can only take you so far, and Southern and Lovelace’s dreamlike approach keeps us from having a firm grip on the chronology of the times. It also feels like an incomplete chronicling of its subject, given its narrow focus on a few bands and the lack of participation of key figures. Still, if you’re looking to spend two hours remembering The Way Things Were before music and New York took such dramatic turns in the mid-2000s, there’s plenty to like about this doc.