Operating out of a small space on Fairfax, the nightclub Largo quickly became more a legend than a venue. Intimate and loose, part of the appeal of Largo is that you literally never knew (I only use the past tense as the club has moved from its Fairfax location to a larger venue on La Cienega in the past month) what, or who might turn up. Largo's where Jack Black and Kyle Gass did some of their earliest work as Tenacious D; Jackson Browne's dropped in to sing a few songs. John C. Reilly has hosted casual, extemporaneous chat shows there; composer Jon Brion (best known for his work on Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) has held shows where he alternates constructing songs out of intricately arranged loops of instrumental figures he records live and composes and conducts on-stage with spirited cover versions of requests shouted out from the audience.
Co-directed by Largo manager and co-owner Mark Flanagan and Andrew van Baal, Largo recreates the Largo experience; loose, smart, random and unique. Mixing concert musical performances with snippets of comedy, the final film makes you feel like you've been to Largo, even as the more elegant notes in the black-and-white composition and the vignettes of the club's rhythm and tempo between the acts make it abundantly clear you're watching a film that was constructed and not just a tape that was turned on.
And the comedy and music sit uneasily together in Largo, until you relax into thinking of the laughs as palate-cleansers between the pathos and intensity of the musical performances; as Flanagan himself explained at the film's LAFF premiere, when he and van Wall looked at the music clips in their entirety, " ... that was a lot of sadness." And so you get moments of comedy as well-polished as a Greg Proops riff on George W. Bush or Sarah Silverman goring Kaballah as she mock-praises what it's done for her ("I just feel so much better ... than you.") But you also get moments as bizarre and spontaneous as Zach Galifianakis reacting to a flubbed gag by lunging out the door and dragging two passers-by onstage for an impromptu interview, or Fred Armisen doing Saddam Hussein as a garrulous British-accented ageing rocker on a solo tour. Some of the clips are too short -- Paul F. Tomkins only gets to utter two sentences -- while other spoken-word bits, like John C. Reilly dishing dirt on Burt Reynolds's acting process during Boogie Nights, are entirely captivating.
But as good as the comedy is (and some of it is very good), the music is what makes Largo worth watching. Fiona Apple sings in her hushed, feral voice; Jon Brion conducts one of his grand and fractured experiments. Colin Hay and Bic Runga perform intimate versions of intimate songs, and David Garza leads a sprawling band in a shambling, sprawling elliptical epic. Other performances range from the old-fashioned bluegrass of Nickel Creek to the high-tech frippery of Bobb Bruno, who crafts soundscapes out of ephemera live, onstage, clad in a big blue bear suit. Grant-Lee Phillips leads a raucous show-closer, and we also get contributions from the first couple of Largo cool, Michael Penn and Aimee Mann.
There are other performers, from Jackson Browne to Andrew Bird, and while part of me wished for identifying supertitles on-screen during the music so I could identify the acts I couldn't recognize as they were playing, I couldn't help but think the stripped-down bare-bones performance was just an extension of the Largo club's rabidly enforced "No Cell Phones" policy; a subtitle identifying Bic Runga or David Garza for the uninitiated would just mean you had something to think about other than their performance, and perhaps you might rather simply enjoy those moments, in those moments, for what they are. Largo isn't a bold manifesto or a zeitgeist-capturing document; it's more relaxed than that. This is our club; these are some of the people who've played here; this is what it would be like if you came, although it would probably be different. It would be easy to dismiss Largo as indulgent -- the film comes close to feeling like the hipster equivalent of 'Hey, let's put on a show'! -- but for the facts that everyone featured is so good at what they do and that, as Flanagan explained at the premiere, any and all proceeds from the film will be going to autism research. Essentially, you get the sense that Flanagan wanted to capture his club just so he could; the fact we get to see that play out on-screen in Largo is our good fortune.