Film Review: 'Meet Me in the Bathroom'
That “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” the new film adaptation of Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 nonfiction recollection of the early 2000s New York City rock scene which debuts on Showtime on Nov. 25, both opens and ends with a voiceover reading from Walt Whitman’s “Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun” is purposeful to a point of being arguably too obvious. The true believers in the power of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and company view their regional spin on the post-punk revival movement as deeply significant not only musically but culturally, the logical heirs of a New York literary tradition descended from Whitman himself.
In the 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” an extended scene depicts the fictional actor Rick Dalton filming the pilot episode of the real television series “Lancer,” as depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s world, shot like a gritty, 21st century western, and like many other fans of the film, I was disappointed when I stumbled upon the real-life “Lancer” pilot and learned that it was not the 1960s equivalent of “Deadwood,” but instead a show most kindly described as disposable and most accurately described as crummy. At first, this inaccuracy annoyed me, but I eventually realized that the purpose of the scene was not to show “Lancer” for what it actually was but for what it represented to Rick Dalton in his memory. And that is why I am ultimately forgiving of the moments where “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is ahistorical – this was the world as seen through the eyes of Julian Casablancas, Karen O or Paul Banks, rather than through the eyes of somebody with intimate knowledge of the Billboard Hot 100.
The film is more of a character study of bohemian New Yorkers than a comprehensive analysis of a genre, which is why some of the most successful rock artists of the era – Las Vegas’s The Killers, Nashville’s Kings of Leon, Akron’s The Black Keys, Sydney’s The Vines, Glasgow’s Franz Ferdinand and London’s The Libertines – are ignored entirely, and Detroit’s The White Stripes are only referenced as it pertains to sharing a bill with The Strokes.
The Strokes, as it pertains to the documentary, are portrayed as one of the biggest bands in the world, and while they were certainly the most commercially successful group highlighted in the film, they were never exactly headlining stadiums (or even arenas outside of New York), never had an album go multi-platinum in the U.S. (albums by rock bands Linkin Park and Staind went quadruple-platinum based on sales in the year 2001 alone), had a grand total of one top-100 single (“Juicebox” reached number 98), and only had one top-five hit on the U.S. Alternative Airplay chart. As a religious alternative rock radio listener of the era, I knew and liked The Strokes, but my perception of them as one of many bands in a crowded musical landscape was, by the metrics, an accurate one. But to 20-somethings in south Manhattan and Brooklyn in 2001, they were gods. And “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is ultimately not an attempt to convince outsiders of their importance, but rather to preach to the converted.
The film’s best moments are its most human, and these are the moments that should appeal most to those who are not hardcore fans of the genre. Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O is a major character, sharing stories of self-doubt, handling sexism, and the trauma of experiencing Sept. 11, 2001 as a New Yorker. (The doc thankfully avoids the misleading narrative fully embraced by CNN’s “The 2000s” that local rock music somehow revived the city after 9/11, and instead mentions how the events impacted the scene’s major players, which was more than fair.) Members of TV on the Radio briefly bemoaned how post-9/11 gentrification of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood caused their rent to triple in the following years, a topic about which I would happily commit myself to an additional 105-minute documentary.
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem details how he felt too old and too uncool to front his first-ever band in his 30s, withstanding initial scorn of “Losing My Edge,” which eventually became his band’s first single and later went on to be listed by Rolling Stone as among the 100 best songs of the 21st century (through 2018).
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” ends somewhat abruptly, which is consistent with the scene’s relative lack of narrative arc – the bands continued and largely continue to this day (the one major exception are The Moldy Peaches, who apparently had an astonishing amount of archival footage that was just waiting to be prominently displayed in the early portions of this movie). The film makes no effort to romanticize the end of an era, because the era never really ended, to the extent that one ever existed at all.
The Strokes, in particular, were lauded as the future of rock and roll, somewhat contradictorily given that they were constantly compared to New York bands of yesteryear such as Television and The Velvet Underground. In terms of sonics – a guitar-bass-drums conventional rock setup and aesthetics – more than their share of drugs and drinking. (“Meet Me in the Bathroom” focuses extensively on guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s heroin dependency, painting solo artist Ryan Adams as a villain.) The Strokes were not unlike what had been seen, a template which was largely unused in the next generation. Consider Billie Eilish, perhaps the contemporary artist who best balances commercial success and critical adoration – the straight-edged, studio obsessed Eilish is not especially similar sonically to The Strokes nor to, say, Nickelback (whose 2001 album “Silver Side Up” sold about six times as many domestic copies as “Is This It”), but in terms of obsessive commitment to craft, she is far more in line with the latter, a band met then and now with critical scorn but who, for better or worse, was obsessed with their craft, even if their music is not for everyone.
Not mentioned once in “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is Jay-Z, an infinitely more popular and influential Brooklyn artist of the era, who is so definitively New York that he got his stage name from a City Subway railway line. Any faithful analysis of the music of the time in the city of New York should heavily feature him. But this isn’t, ultimately, the story of a city nor the city of a genre, but the story of people who came together and thrived on their own terms. And as a document commemorating this particular group of outsiders in this particular city at this particular moment in time, “Meet Me in the Bathroom” works.