One one level, Artifact has elements of that that most egregious of self-serving documentaries, the tale of the woeful band fighting against their evil corporate overlord.
We start with the band Thirty Seconds to Mars trying to record their latest album, and they’re chafing against the restrictions of a nine-year contract that they’re still beholden to. Led by Jared Leto (you know, that pretty guy from Requiem for a Dream), the band is seeking to change the restrictions of their deal and is readying for a fight.
As a counter offer, their label, Virgin/EMI, sues the band for $30 million dollars.
To its credit, the film then focuses on a much wider subject, namely, the realities of the modern music business, the vagaries of art versus commerce, and so on. The specifics of the one case are expanded to illuminate a greater truth, namely, that the entire industry of music is in the midst of an enormous flux that has been taking place over the last decades. From this chaos comes a number of stark truths about the economics of pop music, and we see through the lens of this one band the new normal for these types of groups.
Of course, the film does remain slightly self serving. Pseudonymously directed by Leto himself, there are times when the portray of the David-like band fighting the Goliath music corporation becomes mildly trite. To his credit, Leto manages to corral a number of (former) record executives to tell things from their perspective. These individuals come across far from wide-eyed or even malicious, but equally passionate spokespeople for the industry that all participate in.
The bands do still need the things that major labels can provide, and Leto is best when painting the situation as far from being black and white. Granted, he does come across as far more accommodating than his adversaries, but I’m sure that’s not entirely far from the truth.
Dealing with a record corporation that itself was going through the tumult of being absorbed by a Venture Capital firm, all while the global economy melted down (a point made explicit early in the film), it’s clear to see why the nature of the negations would have been extremely challenging.
The band’s manager and lawyer have some amusing moments on screen, particularly when a speakerphone call filled with abuse and invective has dialogue spat at a company executive about to board a plane. Seeing this grandstanding and almost churlish discourse is a rare opportunity at seeing how this stuff really plays out when the stakes are this high.
I can’t say that the film made me a fan of the band – the generic alterno-post-psychadelic-prog metal stuff isn’t my demographic, alas. Leto can sing, in fairness, and his drummer brother and companion on guitar do their level best. Under the watchful eye of famed producer Flood, we seem them craft a record that (based on the rabid Toronto audience) speaks well to fans of the group. I tend to love the little studio tidbits in films like this, and there are a few times where we get to see the creative process set aside from the drama surrounding the contract.
While it’s at time hard to take Leto’s poverty predicament seriously (it’s not like he doesn’t have a modelling and film career to fall back on), as a cypher for what other groups are made to suffer the film is an interesting document indeed. Its win at TIFF for best doc is a reflection more of Leto’s rabid fan base than of the film itself (my screening was 3/4 full, but packed with fans that had already seen the piece), but that doesn’t take away its genuine qualities.
The ending won’t come as much of a surprise, but there are moments along the way that definitely are unexpected, and speak to the film’s overall quality. Artifact remains an interesting film, asking a number of important questions about the commerce of art, and does so in an engaging way.