Fearless Freaks

Deep into the Strange World of the Flaming Lips

Movies Features The Flaming Lips
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In the middle of the madness, I was sitting on a couch next to a guy dressed like Jesus. All the familiar faces were there, and I’m not sure what we were drinking, but it tasted like peppermint. Vintage ’70s country blasted from the stereo as a goofy troop of college-aged Okies danced wildly near a mantel sporting several sepia-toned family rodeo photographs.

When Wayne Coyne walked in with his voluptuously lipped longtime girlfriend, he was greeted joyously; everyone was happy to see him again. Still, when he sauntered through the door, it was if everything temporarily froze. Looking back, he’s always had that way about him when I'd see him around town—mythic, yet familiar. After a few seconds, though, everything returns to normal. Conversations resume, old acquaintances branch off for games of spin the bottle.

So my first encounter with the strange world of the Flaming Lips wasn’t at a huge, life-affirming, confetti-drenched concert; it was at a Christmas party at my friend Bradley Beesley’s house in Norman, Okla. By the time of the aforementioned party, in 1999, the band was on its way to cultivating a near-religious following amongst the indie set. Soon Coyne would bring his bizarre onstage antics—white suits and mock bloody headwounds included—to a much larger audience. The Soft Bulletin had already come out and was doing particularly well. But the Lips still lived among us. And, aside from his entrance, Coyne stood out amongst his buddies mostly because he wore a neat hat and was going grey.

The next time I ran into him and his bandmates Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins, they were dressed in space suits and crawling around in a giant, white septic tank Coyne found near his house in Oklahoma City. Christmas on Mars, Coyne’s first feature film—assembled with a low-budget sci-fi approach he calls “Head-Trip Cinema”—will wrap in August after mysteriously and sporadically developing since 2001.

During SXSW 2004, Coyne actually towed the cumbersome homemade set down I-35 to use a friend’s Austin-area backyard for one of his piecemeal shoots. The scene, while star-studded, felt like a friendly camping trip. Adam Goldberg arrived to shoot his part with Christina Ricci and her miniature pinscher. Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock also showed up, hanging out for hours studying the lines Coyne had scribbled for him on legal-size paper.

By the end of the long day in Austin, we’d built a fire, and most of the crew sat around sipping drinks. But Coyne—known for his focused work ethic—didn’t take any breaks. Instead, he commanded the set, attending to minute details. He barely even paused to eat or drink anything, consuming little more than Diet Coke from the smorgasbord of subs and Cheetos I’d arranged earlier. Beesley, the film’s cinematographer, had hired me to work craft service so I could take care of some bills. That’s how things work in Oklahoma. There’s a buddy system, and you stick to your roots.

The Lips are no exception. But their roots aren’t the sort you’d expect—not when they make the kind of music they do. Going from several years frying cod at Long John Silver’s, as Coyne did, to becoming one of alternative music’s biggest acts is a little freakish. But it’s the foundation of the Lips’ inimitable, peculiar charm.

One of the highlights of Fearless Freaks, Beesley’s 15-years-in-the-making documentary on the band, now available on DVD, is Coyne’s visit to the Oklahoma City Long John Silver’s he spent so much time working at in the late ’70s. Returning with Beesley to what’s now a modest restaurant owned by a Vietnamese family, Coyne spontaneously reenacts a robbery he experienced one night. Again, he commands the room, creating his own impromptu play and inviting two of the owner’s young children to be actors held at gun point by an intruder Coyne impersonates. He encourages the kids to get on the floor, and then commends their performances.

“The Wonderously Improbable Story of The Flaming Lips,” reads the subtitle to Beesley’s doc. It sums up the working-class beginnings and career risk-taking that should’ve foiled The Lips ages ago. Now, after 15 years and 400 hours of footage, including home movies, interviews, concerts and visits to the elusive Christmas on Mars set, Beesley’s insider account is now available on DVD. “The best part is I never knew I was making a documentary,” he says before the film’s premier at San Fransisco’s Noise Pop Festival. “I was just hanging out with my friends collecting footage.” As the film—narrated in Beesley’s own amiable drawl—travels the 2005 festival circuit, it’s clear its intimacy would’ve been impossible without a few lucky coincidences.

“I think we’re partners in crime,” says Beesley, who met Coyne when they were neighbors in Norman, Okla., in 1991, a time when the Lips were still on the fringe and needed cheap help from local film students—a time when proximity was on Beesley’s side. Now he’s co-directed nine Flaming Lips videos and established himself as a nationally award-winning documentary filmmaker—something you don’t see happening that often in Oklahoma.

“The Lips have a homemade, homespun take on everything, which I also have,” says Beesley. “I think being from Oklahoma and being somewhat isolated from major film production and the music biz has fed that. It’s just so random. Oklahoma’s just not known for many things, especially not weird, psychedelic rock music.”

Yep, the mostly inconsequential, strangely quaint, pan-handled chunk of land just North of Texas is covered in red dirt and sparsely dotted with strip malls and churches. But isolation often breeds quirkiness. And every so often, you’ll encounter some incredible characters in Oklahoma. Like the Flaming Lips. Or Woody Guthrie. Or noodlers—the fishermen who catch catfish using only their bare hands and who were the subjects of Beesley’s 2001 documentary, Okie Noodling, whose soundtrack The Lips composed. For Beesley—who constantly calls such characters his favorite element of documentary filmmaking—becoming neighborly with guys like the Lips has been a godsend.

“Hopefully, Fearless Freaks isn’t a rockumentary for fans,” he says “They’re gonna like it no matter what. Those aren’t the people we’re trying to reach here. It really isn’t about the band. It’s more about the characters. [Like] taking a crew into the crack-infested neighborhood Wayne still lives in, two miles from his brothers and mother, was pretty amazing. We really tried to capture that in the film—the essence of this man and why he stayed in the same neighborhood he grew up in as a child.”

Today when Coyne mows his lawn or takes a walk around the block in one of his infamous white suits, a surprisingly small number of his neighbors have any inkling of his significance. “He’s inspired by his own ideas and doesn’t need to move to New York or L.A. to be stimulated,” says Beesley. “He can do it in Oklahoma City. I’ve always admired him for that. He looks at himself as just a regular guy. He doesn’t think he’s any better or any worse than the guy who lives next door to him without any air conditioning.”

Fearless Freaks gets its name from the football league Coyne started with his dare-devilish playmates in the ’70s. Thanks to about 60 hours of super-8 footage collected by his brother, Kenny, we can actually see how freaky it used to get in their neighborhood.

“Certainly that activity was cultish,” Beesley explains one afternoon on the phone. “Every Sunday for a decade these grown men played tackle football with no shoes or shirts. Tackling someone without pads or a shirt or shoes is just insane. The longevity of their backyard league—that was pretty freakish.”

The Lips do have overwhelming endurance. The band’s been at it since 1983. “Wayne doesn’t need to eat, sleep or be surrounded by people telling him how great he is,” Beesley continues. “He just needs to produce and keep producing. He’s relentless. That’s how he’s a freak. I’ve never met anyone like that. He’s nonstop.”

But even with his amazing creative drive, without multi-instrumentalist Drozd, Coyne’s freakish stamina could only have catapulted the band so far. “Steven is a freak in a way that he’s such an incredible genius,” says Beesley. “He can play anything note-for-note after hearing it once.” The Drozd family jams—featuring Steven, his fresh-from-jail brother and his once-pro saxophonist father—are among the most touching parts of Fearless Freaks. It’s Drozd’s story that sets Beesley’s film apart from more traditional rockumentaries, bringing the work an honesty and intimacy rarely afforded by high-profile subjects.

Until 2001 Drozd was pretty much a creatively productive heroin junkie. And Beesley, having the unique, complete access he did, was there with his camera. The candor he achieves with Drozd, as he films his friend nearly destroying himself, is almost immeasurable.

In one scene, the movie switches from color to black and white, and the strength of the filmmaker/subject relationship officially moves beyond typical. Drozd sits alone in a room, holding a spoon, facing Beesley and the camera straight on. In extreme close-up, he sucks a liquid into a needle and addresses Beesley directly, describing what he’s about to do, how it will feel and how badly it’s hurting him and the people who love him. Then he shoots up.

The film returns to color and moves on. The band records its acclaimed Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Coyne and Ivins deal as best they can with their friend’s addiction. Thankfully, Drozd gets better, finally kicking his habit. By film’s end, you’ve seen far more than you could glean from a rock show with people dancing feverishly in animal costumes.

“I’m constantly amazed at how much access [Steven] and Wayne have given me,” says Beesley. “It’s a pretty unique situation. You end up giving a broader scope about life. It’s not just a bunch of live footage. There’s not much emotion in watching musicians play live music, unless you’re there. Hopefully, this film is different because it evokes some emotion by getting to know the Lips as people.”