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Joel Crary Review

"Don't Quit Your Daydream" is one of the best music documentaries of recent memory. It's the kind of film that could very well have been packed with self-pity and unbearable pretension, but instead it presents itself honestly and with a humble reverence for the act of creation. It is also thoroughly a documentary that belongs to the 21st century. In the midst of the incredible odds now against a kid in a garage ever making it big as a rock star someday, it has the maturity to admit that while fame would be nice, it's simply never a guarantee. Better to be an artist first.

A decade ago, Clark Stiles and Nathan Khyber were in a band called Absinthe. After playing South by Southwest and signing with a major label, the band fell apart. "Five guys with dreams being realized at the same time is a freakshow," Clark reflects. "We were kind of blitzkrieged by the notion of success," Nathan observes in a separate interview. Clark was unceremoniously dumped from the group. Sony did nothing with Absinthe's debut. And so both Clark and Nathan found themselves without a band and with a friendship in need of repair.

Since the breakup of Absinthe, Clark and Nathan have released two records as The Good Listeners, but haven't tasted the same kind of "hot new thing" attention their previous band received. It's been both a blessing and a curse. The two men have day jobs: Clark designs websites and Nathan builds models and props for films. They are getting older. Flecks of grey are beginning to make their way into Clark's beard. In an early scene, they are berated by a friend, challenged to think about the cold hard facts of trying to make a living at being a musician. "This isn't a career field for 40-year-old men." Maybe they've done all they can do to create a hit record.

The notion of creating a hit record, especially a financially rewarding one, has never been more ludicrous. Those now approaching middle age still remember a period when rock bands were courted by labels as though two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer and a vocalist were licenses to print money. It's not the way things work anymore. Thanks to digital distribution and piracy, major labels have foundered one after the other. Yet the Internet has made it possible for more bands to be discovered than ever. Music has been entirely democratized for the fan, but what about the artist that always wanted to make a living at their art?

There's a fundamental separation between the type of young musician who grows up and settles into a life of mediocrity because it's safe and the type who chokes on the idea. Some become content to work the day job, get the house, raise the family and lose entirely their old way of thinking and feeling. It isn't that Clark and Nathan are unwilling to give up music, simply that they're unable. "I'd hate to die a web designer," Clark admits. "I'd rather die an okay musician." They continue to write and record music because it's who they are, who they've always wanted to be.

Clark and Nathan's drive to write just one song that will reach a large group of people (and maybe help pay a few bills) puts them on a road trip across the United States. It's a way of challenging themselves to construct something new, especially in this digital climate, where distances are typically closed with coaxial wiring. The Good Listeners' previous records, "Ojai" and "Crane Point Lodge," were put together in isolation under self-imposed timeframes. "Don't Quit Your Daydream" is an explosion of technique, the opposite of those records. Clark and Nathan make several stops along their journey, collaborating with a local musician in each new location, recording a different song over the course of a single day. After about three weeks, they have a new record and a filmed document of its creation.

These scattered musicians are at the core of what makes "Don't Quit Your Daydream" an effective film. In Joshua Tree, California, the band is joined by Bingo, a hippie living off the grid. They record in a domed building designed by Howard Hughes engineer George Van Tassel as a life-prolonging structure intended to communicate with aliens. Bingo lives a slovenly existence. He is in need of an unspecified surgery. His clothes are falling apart. But he is centred, happy and grateful: "I'm not being shot at. I'm not being incarcerated against my will. My house isn't being bombed. I'm doing great."

The Good Listeners encounter more souls on the road. There is Lane, an old drunk who shows up out of nowhere and beats out a piano track in New Mexico. And Bugs, who admits that he learned to play guitar in order to drown out the sound of his parents fighting. A Louisiana riverboat captain named Black adds harmonica to a song and relates his fears about the disappearance of the Cajun culture. A mechanic named Daddy Mac, missing half his teeth, demands $500 before laying down a few blues licks and a rambling vocal delivery. At an art gallery in Dallas, a young guy who tampers with Atari game soundtracks and uses a Commodore 64 as an instrument shares his charmingly backwards philosophy: "Lately I've been listening to a lot of music that I hate. I got bored with good music, so I started listening to music like a sociologist."

There are others, including kids from the School of Rock in Philadelphia, actor Adrian Grenier in Louisville and a young man trying to choose between baseball and music as a professional career in Brooklyn. The sum of these characters is a wide-ranging view of why people listen to music and why they feel the need to perform it. The youngsters want to be the Rolling Stones, the old-timers miss the way things used to be. Every point is valid, real, unique and heartfelt. We get the sense that Clark and Nathan's film isn't simply another documentary about a band, but about the purpose that playing music brings to many different lives.

There is no obvious grand statement (or "bumper sticker" as Nathan calls it) to close out "Don't Quit Your Daydream." If there is a grand statement, it's the album and the film, for both are products of the process. Before the trip, Clark and Nathan didn't yet have a third record, and now they do. There are 11 more songs in their repertoire. Perhaps one of those songs will have its day. I know this: Less than a week ago, I had no idea who The Good Listeners were. I happened to hear "Insect Losing Balance," their experiment with the Atari musician, on a playlist at a friend's house. Within 48 hours, I'd heard their record and seen their film. Music travels.

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