R.E.M. By MTV (review)

R.E.M. – R.E.M. By MTV (MTV / Rhino) review

The careers of both R.E.M. and MTV dovetailed in an odd way. During its early days, the fledgling network would play anything to get noticed, and the Athens, Georgia band found themselves unlikely stars of the new video medium. As the band grew, so did the network, until 1991, when both were the biggest in their respective fields. R.E.M. by MTV is a comprehensive documentary made up entirely of footage from the network’s archives, providing a revealing look into one of the biggest bands of the late 20th century.

Because MTV was there in the beginning, you really do get to see the band mature right before your eyes. There are a few times when the band contradicts themselves – a young Michael Stipe claimed his lyrics were meaningless, while the elder version of Stipe couldn’t say enough. The film makes clear that R.E.M. were one of the most unlikely hit bands in the history of rock. From very humble beginnings as art students in 1979, the band slowly grew in popularity to finally hitting #1 on the charts in 1991 with “Losing My Religion.” Yet, through it all, the band never lost their credibility as artists.

Because R.E.M. were a constant on the channel, they’re featured in a wide array of settings – on the Video Music Awards, Unplugged, MTV News, 120 Minutes- all the while, the band is both funny and frank. Producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter provide interesting insight into the band’s early days, while Don Gehman reveals a little-known turning point for the band: during the recording of Life’s Rich Pageant, Gehman, who had been making hit records with John Mellencamp for years, was really the first person to question the absurdity of Stipe’s lyrics. As a result, we see his words begin to actually “mean something.”

The band was not without its share of adversity. Especially the ill-fated Monster tour of 1995, where drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm, and 3/4 of the group ended up in the hospital at one point or another. The news footage during this time reminds just how serious things were. Berry eventually left the band, which shifted the group’s dynamic and sound, yet they continued on. There’s an excerpt from Eddie Vedder’s heartfelt induction of the band into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. R.E.M. eventually called it quits in 2011 – oddly, that’s the one thing that’s not covered in this documentary.

There’s also a decent amount of bonus material (the deleted scenes from Peter Buck are hilarious, and worth every penny). The producers thankfully left out one of the band’s more ridiculous claims: that they would break up at midnight on Jan 1, 2000 (they would continue 11 years beyond that stupid prediction).

R.E.M. is one of the most influential, yet under-appreciated bands of the last 30 years. R.E.M. by MTV goes a long way toward setting the record straight. —Tony Peters