TIFF 2012 Review: Jared Leto’s Searing Music Industry Expose ‘Artifact’

A scene from Artifact. Courtesy TIFF.

If you don’t know who 30 Seconds to Mars is, you will soon. Artifact is the Super Size Me of the music industry, and makes its world premiere this weekend at TIFF. From amidst the band’s screaming throng of adoring fans, Jared Leto talks about his 30-million dollar battle with record label giant EMI.

With many acting successes under his belt (Requiem for a Dream, Lord of War, Fight Club), Jared Leto turned his focus to the band he created with his brother, drummer Shannon Leto. Artifact was born as a standard making-of-our-next-album documentary, and quickly turned into a searing expose, when the band got served with a jaw-dropping lawsuit by their record label.

If wondering “Who the heck are these guys?”, so did I, as well as TIFF programming staff… At first. Once you hear their radio hit “Kings and Queens”, you’re likely to say “Oh, yeah, I know that one! I love that song!” and might even join the devoted fans that have been packing stadiums all over the world.

With the initial trepidation of a woman allergic to anything mildly reminiscent of Nickelback, and an immature fixation on why Jared Leto would ruin his gorgeous face with his current Jesus beard, I grabbed a former-singer gal pal and pressed on. From the palpable near-hysterical buzz of the waiting audience, to the catcalls and screams as Jared took the stage, it was clear the band has a cult following. I had a feeling I might soon fall under the spell myself.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to premiere this film. Toronto is one of the most magical cities in the world,” cooed Leto, ever the wide-eyed charmer, and expressed joy in being “part of one of the most prestigious film festivals in North America.” Ahem, how about the most prestigious film festival in the world? Just saying.

“We’ve been working on this for four years. It’s a labour of love.” said the actor-slash-singer, who also directed the film (under jokester fake name “Bartholomew Cubbins”). And his charm is indeed hard to resist. Throughout the admittedly one-sided account of the band’s ordeal, I tried to offset Leto’s Dracula-like ability to hypnotize (that’s right, Lugosi did it way before “glamouring” on True Blood) with my usual healthy cynicism toward any message fed to me while trying to pull at my heartstrings.

And try, it does. Opening sequences introduce the band’s members and set the tone of the story, but are met with a choppy transition to a segment of melodramatic declarations of music’s singular societal importance and everlasting power (not surprisingly, by musicians and industry insiders). This, my least favourite part of the film, feels a tad manipulative, and oversimplifies what later proves to be a much more complex issue.

However, any grudge is soon softened, as the tone becomes more (although never completely) factual and balanced. We are educated with extensive and informative interview clips with industry insiders: from impassioned fellow musicians, legal experts and an impressive array of former top EMI executives.

Why would former execs at EMI talk at length, in an account of a band’s nightmare when slapped with EMI’s 30-million dollar lawsuit, you ask? The film explains how the once agreeable relationship between the band and their label turned south, as the economy and illegal downloading sent the music industry into a tailspin. We are told Brit mogul Guy Hands took over EMI with a singular focus on greed and profit at all costs, and that any exec who actually cared about music or musicians was quickly canned or jumped ship.

The mechanics of record contracts and their many loopholes are explained, on a general level, giving us some (albeit simplistic and one-sided) detail as to how “the artist always gets screwed” by enormous post-production charges that leave the musicians in a debt balance owing to the label, even after selling millions of albums, further compounded when their contract forces them to make even more albums, thus the debt load worsens exponentially. My former-singer friend often nodded knowingly, and stated after the movie: “That’s exactly why I left the music business”.

Much like the oft-bemoaned master-slave recounts of the movie studio giants such as MGM in the 40’s and 50’s, who forced their starlets into B-movies, we can see how a record contract became the shackles of a well-meaning musical trio, struggling to retain even a shred of creative control of their own work.

As the legal battle wears on, the band risks it all. They agree to “put all bets on black”, break from EMI, and create the album completely on their own. Knowingly plunging themselves even further into debt and the abyss of the unknown, they risk everything on sheer faith in the album they hope to create.

Leto consciously decides to bear the brunt of the burden; the enormous workload and responsibility of doing all the preparation and promo for the album essentially alone. Childhood photos and interviews with their mom paint the picture of the brothers’ lifelong love-affair with music, and enrich our understanding of the band’s choice to put everything on the line for their craft.

Likely the most special treats in this documentary come in at this point. With a few laughs and tender moments, only the heartless could remain purely fact-obsessed about this story of what seems to be three sincere, down-to-earth, nice guys. The camera catches Leto’s every sigh of worry, stress, frustration. As prime decision-maker of the band, he is tormented over the ethics, risks and impossible choices of an artist fighting the good fight against a faceless corporate Goliath. Even during understandable bouts of swearing, Leto remains ever likable, facing each roadblock with commendable intelligence and grace.

We are privy to many insights into a like of musical passion and the creative process. Great music, ranging from experimental riffs to finished songs are set to the backdrop of stunning L.A. city views, and majestic Californian countrysides, where Leto frequently escapes to calm his nerves and find answers within. Our eyes are treated to a unique feast in the Frank Lloyd Wright house, when a much-needed change of scenery soothes their souls. Leto later draws faces in the sand, hugs wacky fans, and by now even the playground-perve beard has grown on me.

We also witness the caring and experienced guidance of producer Flood, legendary for his essential role in developing rock icons like U2 and (Gasp! My dark angels of early electronica!) Depeche Mode. Although moved by Flood’s wise advise, the band is torn by their sincere desire to simply fight for artists’ right to a fair contract. By the time the Leto experiences a moving eureka moment, our hearts carry a silent cheer, as he names their unborn album “This Is War”. Although plagued by self-doubt, the band ultimately never lose track of what’s important – their bond, their morals, and their music.

In the end, Artifact is spot-on in all ways except one. It loses one star from me, for being a bit too simplistic and laying all the blame on the big bad corporation, even though it’s a temptation we all have. Although there is mention of illegal downloading, and a band is understandably delicate with its’ fans, I feel like EMI as the only scapegoat is not the answer. The sweatshops of the world exist because we buy their products. The puppy mills exist because we buy from pet stores.

So too, the musician gets screwed because their label is crumbling and desperate. Why? Because we stopped valuing a musician’s year in the studio, when we stopped paying for their songs. We stopped buying a whole album. Loving it for the journey that it is. We stopped waiting in line in eager anticipation, listening to it as a whole, reading each lyric and holding the artwork to our hearts like the lovingly created treasure that it is… And worst of all, we became a society that always looks to the easy scapegoat, instead of taking an honest look at ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Artifact screens again at TIFF on Sunday, September 16 at 3:30 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Image: Film still from Artifact, courtesy of TIFF.

Isabel Cupryn

About Isabel Cupryn

Isabel Cupryn is a freelance writer and film blogger in Toronto.