The new documentary Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio tells the story of the legendary DIY venue from an insider’s perspective — its director, Matthew Conboy, is the former manager of Death By Audio. Starting in 2005 with a warehouse space strewn with rubble and carpeted with a half-inch of water, Conboy and a series of partners (whose involvement ranged from two years to the full nine-year lifespan of DBA) created a combination of a communal living space, guitar pedal factory, and trendsetting concert venue that would go on to host such acts as Ty Segall, Dirty Projectors, Thurston Moore, Future Islands, and Dan Deacon.
Interviews do the majority of the heavy lifting in telling the story of the venue’s rise and fall, but they often cripple the film’s flow. While Conboy speaks with a handful of bands and critics, the brunt of the film is structured around the perspectives of the DBA family of managers, residents, and employees. The DBA crew sharing tales of its glory days is a lot like to a group of old friends recounting past triumphs to an outsider; the outsider may be amused, but he has no clue where fact separates from collectively embellished hyperbole. Without — for example — the context provided by the outside perspectives of the countless fans who flocked to the space, these recollections ring a bit hollow.
The film thrives when Conboy employs techniques other than talking heads, particularly when he creates a smart, tech-savvy visual shorthand for DBA’s rapid growth and expansion. One memorable sequence starts with a shot of hirsute manager Edan Wilber filming an off-camera performance and cuts to a split screen. One half features a rapidly scrolling list of dates and acts that performed at DBA in a given year. As that list scrolls, the right side of the screen rotates through corresponding performance images from Wilber’s Instagram account (@thepiratehat). Conboy offers four years worth of these sequences (2011–14), and the almost-daily pace of show listings speeding from the bottom to the top of the screen conveys the vast scope of the invaluable work DBA was doing.
Vice Media put the brakes on the venue’s activities by renting the two floors above DBA to be its new headquarters in 2014. At the time, the company — previously a champion of curation and independent, artistic communities — received significant pushback for scrapping a significant and beloved cultural space. A montage showcases media clips attacking Vice for displacing the venue. While Vice receives significant scorn for its destruction, Conboy, to his credit, does note the part that DBA also played in gentrifying its pocket of North Brooklyn: “To the people who had been living [in Williamsburg] for 20 or 50 years, we were the change.” This statement shows an awareness of the world outside of the venue that is otherwise absent from the documentary.
The majority of the film’s 83 minutes are lead-up to DBA’s final month of shows. This portion of the film features crisper, high-definition photography as well as fuller (though rarely complete) songs. The best performance comes from Nashville rockers JEFF the Brotherhood. As they play their song “Heavy Krishna,” Conboy combines strobe lighting, crowd footage captured with a shaky camera, and low angle shots of the band to convey the impression of the duo as imposing rock gods (not unlike the cover of their 2015 release, Wasted on the Dream).
Even more engaging than the musicians is the footage of the audience that attended that last month of shows at DBA. Crowd members embrace, high-five, and sweat as they mark the end of an era. This fleeting glimpse of the show-goers that made DBA such a success could, in larger doses, have kept the documentary from feeling so insular. The fan interviews from Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization and its sequel provide great models for what could have been.
At one of the final shows, black-and-white footage shows Wilber crowd-surfing, arms spread; music-lovers pass him around the space with a careful veneration typically reserved for band members, not the man running the soundboard. The fans’ worship is for the venue as much as for the music in a way that is reminiscent of Steve Coogan’s discussion of the “Beatification of the Beat” in Michael Winterbottom’s Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People. To the detriment of Goodnight Brooklyn, Conboy likewise shows more interest in the venue and the people behind it than in the art and social context that created the perfect environment for it to succeed.
Goodnight Brooklyn — The Story of Death By Audio screens at Nitehawk (136 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) on February 7 at 7:30pm. Director Matthew Conboy and producer Amanda Schultz will be a present for a post-film Q&A.