Nine Inch Nails Get Misty-Eyed Over And All That Could Have Been
By Aaron Jentzen

Trent Reznor keeps doing his thing, I keep doing mine. I thought Iíd washed my hands of the whole NIN business by selling off my copy of The Downward Spiral several years back. Yet, Trent keeps popping up in my world (strange, since Iím not really a fan), and I keep not popping up in his (a small blessing). I went to college a couple miles down the road from Trentís hometown of Mercer, deep in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. I rocked some coffee shops there with my band, and frequented a roadhouse where he reportedly showed up on occasion to swill beers with the peasantry. A professor I knew was tight with Reznorís dad. After graduating, I moved to Lakewood (Cleveland area), and kicked around the safety-pinned remnants of the scene where he got his start. I had an argument with my girlfriend about her going to see NIN with some guy from the radio station I wasnít real into at the time. She went. I could go on, but you get the picture. It seems Trent has popped up once again, following me in spirit to my new digs in California: I somehow ended up standing outside a Chem. building on the UC Davis campus, waiting in line to see a free advance screening of a new NIN film of some sort.

The screening was a rag-tag affair, comprised of perhaps eighty Davis students and an ego-tripping MC, who handed out a few promo cds with an arbitrariness calculated to foster unrest among those (including yours truly) who did not receive one. (We were, however, somewhat mollified with free posters, stickers, etc. as well as a questionnaire requesting our honest feelings about the film.) Before the film started, I had no idea what to expect from itówas it a documentary? An artsy multimedia side project? Nasty rumors were circulating about a collaborative effort between Trent and a visual artist specializing in gruesome and shocking images, the nature of which I wonít repeat here. Such speculations proved false, as the opening credits came up for And All That Could Have Been:NIN Live.

And All That Could Have Been, in stores January 22 on CD, DVD, VHS, and a two-CD deluxe edition, is the first live recording from NIN, featuring performances culled from 2000ís The Fragility V2 U.S. tour. The product seems poised to ride the critical acclaim of The Fragile and the promotion tour Rolling Stone proclaimed best of the year, although the financial soundness of a follow-up to a commercially under-achieving album seems somewhat suspect. But Iíll leave that matter to Reznorís accountant. Letís get back to the filmÖ Cue crowd noise. The opening notes of "Terrible Lie" snarl from the speakers, the lights come up. Reznor, resplendent in white face paint, scraggly long hair, and a sleeveless black shirt, chants the spooky lyrics while writhing a la Alice Cooper, "Welcome to My Nightmare." The harsh lighting pulses with the beat, the band thrashes around like rag dolls, the guitars scream and so do the fans. Trent and his band of Ziggy Stardust/ Blade Runner/ Billy Idol clones proceed to headbang through "Sin," "March of the Pigs," and "Piggy" before they downshift and let you catch your breath with the appropriately restrained "The Frail."

Youíd think that sharing a bill with David Bowie, let alone remixing "Iím Afraid of Americans" would be enough. Youíd think that Marilyn Mansonís aping of all-things-Ziggy Stardust for the doomed Mechanical Animals would be sufficient warning. But no, NIN has to wear its Bowie-fandom on its sleeve, whether through the guitaristís shamelessly Ziggy makeup and costume, Reznorís compulsion to insinuate bizarre alien sex with his band members, or the sheer glammy theatrics of the whole affair. While itís hard to watch this film without thinking of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, NINís effort lacks the latterís playful self-consciousness. In Ziggy, the spliced-in dressing-room footage, Ziggyís "rock and roll suicide," etc. give Bowieís staginess an endearing vaudeville quality, a self-consciousness, whereas NINís, without such reflexive moments, just wallows in its omnipresent heaviness, apparently unaware of its campy qualities.

And All That Could Have Been shows some things in rock íní roll havenít changed much since the early Ď70ís. Fog machines are still considered cool, I gather from the film. "Dueling guitars," string-bending grimaces, and running hands through the hair in a passionate manner are also apparently still legit, although I would have guessed them by now the sole province of geriatric rock spectacles like the Stonesí Bridges to Babylon stage show. Zepís theremin scene from The Song Remains the Same is served up move for move by the good folks in NINótwice. At a couple of key moments the band gets Who-esque, smashing instruments and flinging mic stands around, while roadies scurry about the thankless task of cleaning up after them ("Baba OíReilly" would have been a great cover for NIN to play at this point). At one point in the film, something white flutters down into Reznorís arms from above, and I thought (hoped) we were in for a reenactment of the whole biting-head-off-chicken fiasco, but it turned out to be just a well-aimed piece of trash.

To be fair, the film benefits from imaginative and well-executed stage lighting, competent camera work, and mostly seamless editing in spite of the fact that the film was cobbled together from several concerts. To their credit, NIN foregoes bombastic Kiss pyrotechnics, but then again, they use their video screens to show flickering flames, so perhaps thatís a moot point. They also throw a lot of water around, for which I have no explanation, but at least it seems different.

The music? Well, the music is good, even great. "Closer" and "Head Like a Hole" never rocked harder. At times the prerecorded tracks and the live instruments congeal and pack some solid sonic wallop. In general, a tight band, with focused, to-the-point performances. The instrumental cuts are particularly excellent. Iíd definitely consider buying the audio cd version, if only for its "greatest hits" appeal. But ultimately the weaknesses of the film stem from the inherent weaknesses of the music: Reznorís lyrics and titles read like a dumb suburban teenagerís diary. (Interesting/indicative fact: in addition to selling "limited edition black fake fur rustic tunics" embroidered with the NIN logo ($59.99) and countless other items, the bandís merch site offers an "embossed NIN logo journal" for sale. This should be sold as a How-To-Be-Trent Kit.) The guy did have to grow up in Mercer, PA, but he looks a little old for this sort of thing these days. Watching the film, I did my best to enjoy the music and ignore the trite lyrics, kind of like how you have to immerse yourself in Leonard Cohenís lyrics and ignore the schmaltzy music. (Now that would be a combo: a Reznor/Cohen collaborationÖ I should try to sell that idea to someone.)


The unrelenting heaviness of the film produces a few humorous moments, if only by contrast or by exaggeration. Itís hard to not find it a little ridiculous when the title "The Frail" comes up on the screen, followed in all seriousness by "The Wretched." "Starfuckers, Inc."óin a way, a pretty funny song, especially if you hum the chorus to Soul Asylumís "Frustrated, Inc." along with it. At one point in the film, an emoting Reznor randomly taps the microphone against his skull, producing an odd popping sound. This is no primal mic-thumping of the George Clinton variety, just a strange, out of place sound, like a punctuation mark ! in the middle of a sentence. Reznor seems a little perplexed about what happened, loses focus, and tries to save the day by thumping the mic against a keyboard, purposefully this time. With all the recorded material available to them, itís strange this take didnít end up on the cutting room floor.

In the final analysis, Iím not sure whether And All That Could Have Been is a good rock movie, or a real stinker. It might even be a great rock movieóthe greatest. The truth is I have no idea what exactly makes a good one good, if there even are any good ones out there. I mentioned the self-consciousness of Bowieís extreme dramatics in Ziggy Stardust as an element perhaps lacking in this modern-day knockoff, but perhaps as with so many "post-modern" gestures, this device is starting to look a little long in the tooth. Maybe Bowieís acknowledgment of the character he plays (so suited to the overblown rock movie) has been rendered unnecessary, and Reznorís more consistent persona is the wave of the futureÖ? Maybe the only thing more overblown than admitting the absurdity of your actions is denial of absurdity.

Trent doesnít seem to know what he wants to do with this video: the stage show is calculated to instill an image of NIN as hard-rock tough guys who get the girls/cars/money, while the music emphasizes vulnerability, fragility (word of the day), and to put it bluntly, shit not working out. The only thing more disquieting than watching a softie go for the macho rock star thing is watching someone like Steven Tyler try to pull off the "sensitive guy" charade. In the film, this tension all comes down to the keyboard. A huge beast of a synthesizer, mounted on an "industrial"-looking hydraulic arm, serves as the central stage prop. Band members use it to slam into each other, to bounce off of, etc. It appears invincible, indestructible. Yet, towards the end of the film, Reznor makes a big point of smashing it with a mic stand, and then (why?) pouring a bottle of water over it. Keyboard dies. Which is it, Trent? Indestructible or fragile? Will you decide already, or are we just stuck in the middle with you? "Iím still here" Reznor sings (as the fans sob) in the last song, "Hurt." We know, Trent, we know. But are we?