There is a fine line between genius and insanity, or, as Nigel Tufnel has been known to say, between clever and stupid. More than once, Jason Miller’s film about the polymorphously prolific musician Kevin Barnes and his ever mutating band Of Montreal calls to mind the classic mockumentary about a hapless rock band, “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984). But in “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” the irony is all from the point of view of the subject. Despite the anguish, ecstasy, and absurdity of his 20-year career, Barnes has maintained a level of mad creativity and narcissistic self-consciousness that is the opposite of Tufnel and company’s non-comprehending fecklessness.
The resume includes 12 unclassifiable studio albums, from “Peel the Cherry” (1997) to “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” (2013), that feature bouncy, eclectic tunes with surreal lyrics that make Bob Dylan sound like Joyce Kilmer, or wrenchingly confessional songs like that of the title, reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Berlin” album. Then there’s the stage act, which has included ’60s-ish psychedelic light shows, collaborations with celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Solange Knowles, Dadaist vaudevillian skits, carnivalesque pandemonia that resemble Mummenschanz by way of Cirque du Soleil, and the bare basics of a naked guy with a guitar singing, dancing, and flopping his way into the hearts of the faithful. How exhilarating, and exhausting, it must be to wake up every day and be Kevin Barnes.
You would think that packing all this into 77 minutes might reduce two decades of hyperactivity to a blur, and so it does, but it also evokes the frantic consciousness of Barnes, his compulsion to create and move on to the next thing. Intermittently Miller returns Barnes to Earth, punctuating the film with comments from those whom the musician has embraced and discarded as, like David Bowie, he sheds one persona for the next. Those castoff acquaintances form a collection of talking heads that is closer in spirit to the band Talking Heads than to the standard documentary convention. He combines that material with bits of performances, videos of the band at play like the Beatles in “Help!,” and interviews with Barnes himself that range from the gnomic to the laceratingly honest. It’s a spiraling kaleidoscope with a lonely soul at its center.
Barnes’s moments of candor reveal the artist not as a young man, but as a spoiled child, a solipsistic obsessive with a wandering attention span, who inspires a loyal company of collaborators and without compunction cuts them loose, who falls in love, gets married, has a child, and disappears. All his experience, imaginary and real, he transforms into his playfully insane music and artifices.
“It doesn’t hurt anybody, really” he says sadly, “except for people close to you.”
It’s a high price to pay. Near the end, what he has lost becomes clear as, ruefully, he romps with his daughter, at one point asking her what she wants to be when she grows up.
“Complicated,” she says.
A chip off the old block.
The official trailer: