This Documentary Now! review contains spoilers.
Documentary Now! Season 2 Episode 5
“At some point you have to pull down the curtain and put on your pajamas.”
Documentary Now!’s stellar 51st season might be beginning to wind down, but clearly they’ve held onto some strong material for the tail end. This time the series is riffing on Jonathan Demme’s visceral ‘80s concert documentary on the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense, a “rock doc” that I’ve heard Armisen bring up a number of times in the past (this is also the second Demme film to get sent up this season, which is kind of interesting considering he’s not even primarily a documentary filmmaker). I was aware of Armisen’s passion for the documentary and was expecting something grand here as a result.
Armisen (who wrote all the music in this episode) is no stranger to doing tangential musical performances at events that have been inspired by his musical riffs on programs like Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, but this musical group feels especially important to both him and Hader. Hell, the duo even did a separate musical documentary (that was a two-parter, at that) last season, but the passion here in their Talking Heads approximate, Test Pattern, is very real. The fictitious musical duo have even already done a live performance on Late Night With Seth Meyers at this point. They just love embodying these musical personae.
It’s also rather interesting to learn that the way this episode was put together involved “Test Pattern” actually performing a live concert. This promotional material indicates a lot of this footage was assembled by them actually throwing a concert (they even come up with a clever way to push guests to wear ‘80s attire to further fulfill their needs). This works about a hundred times better than performing something in studio and using extras to complete the illusion of a concert film. It just acts as another strong piece of evidence of the meticulous production design and effort involved in this program. Every step is taken to make this look more real.
The episode sees Hader as Marky (who is more or less doing his Steffon voice here, which is just nice to hear again) and Armisen as Lee, both of which are given opportunities to shade in these bizarre characters beyond being musicians. There’s an absurd aside about Lee going through a phase where he married a bunch of inanimate objects that you just need to get behind. Test Pattern’s third member comes courtesy of Maya Rudolph (acting as the Tina Weymouth surrogate) and she fits in here like a rhinestoned glove. Yes, they’ve all worked on SNL together but I can’t think of a person better than Rudolph to fill this role. She’s just the perfect loud, brassy musical personality with nearly as much versatility as Hader and Armisen themselves. All of the band members’ hefty egos make appearances here too, even if they materialize in fairly subtle ways through this doc. These are musicians after all.
As “Final Transmission” plays on you’re treated to a number of Test Pattern classics, hits like “Art + Student = Poor,” “This Is My Street,” and my favorite, “Flashing Lights.” There’s even an ‘80s style robot that accompanies the band in a very welcome touch. Robin Sparkles would approve.
Through the band’s final performance, we also get to go through the group’s varied evolution, such as their Belinese period, Marky’s William Gibson-inspired songs, and let’s not forget the Rudolph-led track that made it onto the Sun Warriors soundtrack, “Save Time For Me.” The reinventions don’t stop and before you know it Armisen is croaking out a too perfect Tom Waits-inspired song that laments about a derelict carousel graveyard.
Much of this episode’s run time is composed of Test Pattern’s farewell concert, which banks big on the novelty of these songs (and if you’re not into them, this episode is probably going to fall onto deaf ears with you). The rest of the documentary intercuts talking heads (heh) regarding how the members of the band found one another and what they’re going to do in the next chapter of their lives. “Final Transmission” definitely feels like the simplest of the episodes of the season, but it arguably might also contain the most love and authenticity of the lot. The music is all a lot of fun and the episode succeeds by copying the simple structure in place for Stop Making Sense. Even if concert docs aren’t your thing, I guarantee you that you’ll be humming the tune of “Art + Student = Poor” or searching for YouTube videos of “Flashing Lights” in the coming days.