When Showtime acquisitions head Gary Garfinkel made the move to pick up the strikingly intimate new Kings of Leon documentary “Talihina Sky” after his staff found it as a work in progress at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, there was no way of knowing how hot a topic the band would become.
Garfinkel says that an unusually robust campaign was already fully underway for the doc, which begins multiple airdates on Showtime this Sunday at 10 p.m., before lead singer Caleb Followill’s boozy on-stage meltdown in Dallas two weeks ago. The visibility was there from the start: “They are arguably the biggest, or the biggest up and coming, band, in the world.”
Indeed, the Kings of Leon have sold more than 12 million albums (including 3 million of last fall’s “Come Around Sundown”) since they emerged in 2003. Once on the road with U2 as an opening act for nearly 18 months, they’ve since become a top draw and succeeded even more explosively in Australia and the U. K., where the doc has been playing well in theaters.
For Stephen C. Mitchell, the first-time director of the doc and a longtime friend to the band, the current brouhaha is mostly downside: “People say, ‘Hey, that’s great publicity — but I found myself here in the 11th hour with my world flipped upside down.”
He’s referring, of course, to Followill’s breakdown early in a now-canceled tour across the States. The singer departed the Dallas stage after a sweet shout-out to his wife since May, Victoria’s Secret model Lily Aldridge, telling the crowd: “I’m gonna go backstage and I’m gonna vomit, I’m gonna drink a beer.”
A European plank is still on the books or later in the year, but band-mate and brother Jared has made it clear, via tweet, that the band is trying to make Caleb go to rehab.
Although Mitchell, an energetic 38-year-old with a ready laugh and the look of someone who does push-ups for fun, admits to getting “a little mouthy” with a couple interviewers he thought were leaning in too hard on the topic, he could hardly have been more revealing in person than the film’s scalding footage.
During one scene, brother Nathan rebukes Caleb while shooting the confrontation with his phone: “You get drunk and you talk sh#t to everybody who makes you who you are,” Nathan yells. “You’re a piece of sh#t and your band cannot f*cking stand you!”
Mitchell shakes his head and recalled going over that footage with the brothers for the film’s DVD release. After watching the startling scene, “Caleb looked at him and said, ‘Who does that? Who yells and films at the same time?’” Mitchell recalled. “And Nathan says, ‘I dunno — I just had enough of you that day, you know?’”
It would be unfortunate if that moment — and the screen time Mitchell and ace editor Paul Greenhouse have woven in of an inebriated Caleb musing forlornly while nursing a shrinking bottle of hooch –overshadowed the doc’s other virtues. The film lives up to its billing as an unexpected tale in the positive displays of raw intimacy and hard-won warmth shared among an extended family.
There are subplots with the band’s Pentecostal preacher dad confessing to alcoholism and infidelity — and yet worrying his boys may end up consigned to a fundamentalist Hell — and their beloved Uncle Cleo being gradually claimed by cancer. These moments make the once-typical rock doc with its worries about cramped conditions on the private jet seem all the more “Spinal Tap”-like in comparison.
“We do reveal some of the issues present in their family in the past,” said Mitchell, “and what got them to the point where Caleb was able to start a band. Otherwise Caleb would be preaching right now, would just be following in his father’s footsteps like kids do in their world.”
He hopes that the film might provide some understanding of the rigors of the road and Caleb’s recent breakdown: “My observation is they’re exhausted,” Mitchell said, noting that Kings of Leon had just finished seven weeks in Europe and Caleb just got married.
“Give him a chance to enjoy that,” he said. “The kid just needs two minutes — he needs a breather.”
Mitchell was in the music biz in Nashville when he first signed Caleb and Nathan to a deal. He quickly became so tight with them that it fell to him to recruit their younger brother Jared — “an honors student who was supposed to go to 11th grade” — to play bass.
“I got nominated to tell their mom Bettie Jane. She cried a lot, and hard,” he recalled. “This has all been a surreal, ten-year journey for me.”
Choosing to debut the film on a widely watched pay-cable network rather than fight uphill into the theatrical marketplace was an easy decision for Mitchell.
“The American market is very difficult, some docs do well and some do horrible,” he pointed out. “Showtime made it very clear to us they really wanted the film, really cared, and it’s a very timely and important platform to get this out to a lot of households.”
Showtime’s Garfinkel can definitely play that tune. He points out that while the kind of original programming that’s buoyed the network, like “Dexter,” is the real market driver, the acquired content like “Talihina Sky,” and last year’s Bon Jovi doc “When We Were Beautiful,” form an indispensable selling point for the schedule.
“And we’ll go wider on “Talihina,” as some of our original programs do: we’ve got the billboards and bus shelters we don’t typically do on acquisitions.”
That kind of promotion reinforces the model Showtime’s established for this series of docs, now unspooling at the rate of about two a month. The network gets docs for a fraction of their production costs, in many cases running a million-plus, in part because of this commitment to push the actual exposure of the doc.
“Getting people to watch it is as important to a major rock band as the metrics are,” Garfinkel said.
We’re in a cultural moment chockablock with rock verite such as Cameron Crowe’s recent “The Union;” his forthcoming “Pearl Jam 20,” headed for PBS after premiering at Toronto; and Davis Guggenheim’s U2’s “From the Sky Down,” which opens Toronto and then will presumably be headed for a cable outlet.
Showtime and the competition have a rich terrain in which to search for what Garfinkel describes as films with “an ability to take us to a place where we could never go.”
Ultimately, says Mitchell, he admires the band “for putting themselves out there, especially at this time now when people want to throw stones,” he said. “You get big and people come after you.”
The Kings of Leon is not giving you some glossy thing in “Talihina Sky,” he said. “They’re really turning the underside up and showing you, ‘Hey, this is the other side of it’s hard to be successful.’”