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Drive Well, Sleep Carefully: On the Road with Death Cab for Cutie

reviewed by dave heaton

Over the image of a cheering crowd come words: "This is not the story of underground versus the mainstream. Or of indie labels versus majors. This is not the story of Benjamin Gibbard or Jason McGerr. It's not the story of Christopher Walla. Or of Nicholas Harmer. This is simply the story of a band on the road." But the truth is, the film is about all of those things, though none are the explicit focus. The film is a portrait of a band on the road, but not just any band: a band that, after years of touring and recording, is finding itself on the brink of some kind of precipice. For whatever reason (the film seems to posit hard work, talent, and chance as the main ones), Death Cab for Cutie have broken to a new level of recognition, and are about to break even bigger. The film depicts them on an especially exhaustive tour, playing their hearts out night after night. Hanging overhead at all times – the invisible ink written on each band member's forehead – is the feeling that things are changing, that years of work are paying off in a big way.

At the center of Drive Well, Sleep Carefully are in-concert performances of songs from throughout the band's career, with sound and image captured quite vividly. Alternated with those are interviews and scenes of the band on the road. Through the band members' thoughts on their tour, the overall impression the film gives is that touring is hard work. And Death Cab for Cutie are hard workers. This isn't your average rock n' roll tour film, with rock stars drinking and carousing up a storm. These rock stars seem extraordinarily ordinary, with a very workmanlike approach to what they do. They show up at clubs early, and work together to accomplish the tasks at hand. This is rock n' roll depicted as work…which isn't to say that they don't have fun, or that the performances in the film aren't terrific, just that Death Cab's members seem to take their work very seriously.

Is it an insult to describe a rock band as 'nice'? As friendly, humble, down-to-earth and focused? Death Cab for Cutie are depicted in the film as all of those things. In an interview, lead singer Ben Gibbard's reaction to the group's increasing popularity is notably grounded. He also seems concerned that the band might be perceived as selling out or neglecting their fans, and is gently defensive about it, noting that everyone who has helped the band out over the years is "being taken care of, in part because of this record contract," and maintaining that they're not compromising to reach a larger audience, just taking advantage of an opportunity to let more people hear their music. "At the very core of our decision is the ambition and the drive to set a new bar for ourselves," Gibbard says. The film offers a portrait in complete support of that claim – in Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, we observe a band of musicians working hard to create music that will mean something to people, and then working just as hard to make sure that people get to hear it.


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