When A Bathroom Becomes A Time Machine: Essay on the “Meet Me In The Bathroom” Documentary
By: Tim Akins
“Meet Me In The Bathroom” (or MMITB as I will refer to it as) is a music documentary that debuted in Sundance that stems from a book it shares the same title with, written by Lizzy Goodman in 2017, about the rock music scene in New York from around 1998, through 9/11 and wrapping up around the first Obama Administration. The title stems from a song by The Strokes on their album, Room on Fire. The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, TV on the Radio, The Moldy Peaches are some of the bands that are covered in both the book and the documentary.
Having read the book, when I heard that there was going to be an adaptation into a documentary, I was very interested and was looking forward to it. The book reads like each chapter is its own diary entry from New York and New York adjacent bands. White Stripes, The Killers, Vampire Weekend and Jonathan FireEater are just some of that bands that are interviewed in the book that do not make it to the documentary. Hearing firsthand accounts of the scene and of the time and experiences of the band members both in the city and on the road was captivating to me, and not just as a resident of New York. The documentation of the homage that each band had for the period felt special, it felt real, it felt palpable. I would always put on a MMITB playlist on Spotify on my phone and listen to is as I read the book riding the E train too and from work. Good vibes, good times.
Sundance Festival has added an electronic aspect to it, so now you don’t have to be in town to see the films. Fans across the globe and get in for a viewing now. I went to the Sundance website to get a ticket for “jeen-yuhs” the Kanye West documentary, and I noticed that there was also a showing for MMITB. At first, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that it was the documentary for the book that I read because the announcement was back in 2018 and I honestly do not think I’ve heard anything about it since. Lo and behold, it was the documentary I was I passively anticipating. Looks like I had a Sundance double-feature on me hands.
The documentary is directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, who also directed the spectacular and stalworth LCD Soundsystem “farewell” concert film, “Shut Up and Play the Hits”, in 2012. It felt heart-warming that two people that have a care and love for the city and the music and have a connection with the musicians were a part of it. At the introduction, they mention that documentary will not have talking heads, so all the footage seen on the screen would be archival footage. Now we’re talking! I find this to be a fascinating technique. The fact that even as James Murphy, Julian Casablancas and Karen O wax poetic about years gone by, we won’t be seeing them as hey are today, but as they were at the turn of the century, is a very immersive film technique. “June 17th, 1994”, a documentary about a chaotic and eventful day in sports and ironically enough “jeen-yuhs” are two documentaries that I really liked that also used that technique. As a viewer it almost transports you and doesn’t bring you back until the credits. SD home footage, smoking in bars, minimal cell phone use, MTV holding sway and CDs moving units fill the screen and for a second (or the two-hour runtime length) it may feel and seem like 2004 is back like cooked crack.
The documentary stars with the disillusion and irrelevancy of the New York rock music scene by the mid-90s and ends with the start of the gentrification of post-9/11 Brooklyn. The Moldy Peaches, The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The Rapture, The Liars, TV on the Radio and LCD Soundsystem are the only bands tackled in the documentary. That’s down from the about 40 that are touched upon and interviewed for the book. I do however think that this was an excellent choice. The guestlist may be a fourth as short, but the impact is twice as hard. Getting to spend time with the band members as the move through the movie and narrate their past lives feels like a ghost story, but in the best way possible.
In the documentary, there are several things that you would hope to see that you obviously do. The rise of The Strokes from the city scene to their coronation in the UK, back to superstardom domestically and culminating in a whirlwind of alcohol and heroin. In the 70’s being a band from New York was a ticket to print money. Hair metal made Los Angeles in the 80’s the place to be and grunge did that for Seattle and other Midwest cities in the 90’s. At the turn of the century, New York was a rap Mecca. It was interesting to see how The Strokes sort of opened a lane for these other bands at the time. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Karen O’s struggles and issues with being a woman in a male-oriented rock landscape are brought up, as we hear her comments and ruminations on the matter outside of and within herself. Concurrently with the music scene and the bands’ growths and changes, you see a city in flux as well. It is also important to note that the documentary does tackle what the September 11th attacks did to the soul of the city and ultimately the people living in it, including the band members. The exodus to Brooklyn allowed for the rise of DIY spaces and shows bringing forth the advent of TV on the Radio and LCD Soundsystem. As the documentary winds down, we get a sense of where and how the city has changed from 2008-2009 to the current day. Laws, legislation, the internet and globalization, the media landscape and fracturing of the culture zeitgeist all played their part. This is not to say that things were per se “better” back then compared to how they are now. Just different.
This made me think about how 20 years after the height of CBGB’s that thinking about the city as a beacon of rock music seemed foreign in the mid-90’s and how cyclical things can be. New York is the center of the world, and music is one of our biggest exports. Any genre can be traced to this city in and has a home is some capacity, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that that inclusion and creativity is something that is as true now as it ever is. Concert venues filled with homegrown and imported talent fill these blocks. Saying the city isn’t what it was, is not to comment on what the city is or even could be. It's to say what is evident throughout the documentary: that we can’t go back.
For everything that the book was (and it is fantastically well-done, thorough, and at this point canonized) the documentary was a favorable supplement. Seeing the smiles, the cries, the dancing, the drinking, the drugs, the music videos, the interviews, the studio sessions, and the overall community was special. As of my writing of this, there is no streaming release date or distribution plan for the MMITB documentary. If you want to read the book before the documentary, it is more expansive, but I wouldn’t say it’s a prerequisite, but with an unclear future for the documentary, I’d cautiously say you’ll have the time. It has quick chapters and as a resident of the city it feels like a history book. The visual and audio medium only deepened my affinity for Goodman’s text, it did not cheapen the book for me in any way. In fact, if anything I think it was fortified.
The concert footage made me want to party. The 9/11 footage and stories made me choke up. The cityscapes made me want to take a lap around Manhattan. “Meet Me In The Bathroom” is a documentary that serves as an ode to New York City. An ode to a New York City that once was and a New York City that won’t come back…