As its subtitle suggests, Goodnight Brooklyn tells the story of Death by Audio, an ‘underground’ music venue housed in Brooklyn from 2007 to 2014.
The story is presented through a series of documentary-style interviews with Death by Audio’s founders and employees, as well as members of the music scene who worked with, and in some cases lived at, the venue over its seven-year existence. These interviews are interspersed with footage of the venue itself, chronicling the final days of the space, which was bought out by a corporation in 2014.
Its tone is at first excited and vaguely inspirational, when the interviewees describe the heady early days of Death by Audio, and then defeatist, as those who use and enjoy the venue count down the days to its closing.
It seems like a classic underdog story.
But if we examine the film critically, and I think we must, a seamy undercurrent of privilege emerges, one that does not sit easily with me.
This is a story told by white men. Virtually all of the interviewees are white, as are nearly all of the musicians and venue patrons shown in concert footage and photos. This despite the fact that New York is incredibly racially and ethnically diverse – www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/population-geography/pop-demography.htm
Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that Death by Audio is a ‘community of interest’, bringing together people with similar interests and tastes in music, and as such, its patronage might tend to be more homogeneous. But it still feels slimy when an interviewed Rolling Stone reporter calls this distinctly monochromatic venue a ‘democratic space’, when its population does not at all reflect that of its home neighbourhood or its city.
More grating, however, is the lack of female voices in telling the story. Women are clearly part of Death by Audio: women are shown playing in bands, attending shows, and assisting with running the venue, and there are several women among the building’s tenants when the group finally moves out. And yet, only a handful of women are ever interviewed – four to be precise, each for thirty seconds or less, and these do not move the story forward in the way the men’s interviews do.
The thing is, I don’t think the film is intentionally excluding certain voices. I think that the filmmaker (and by extension the main figures in Death by Audio’s history, of whom the filmmaker is one) is so unaware of his privilege that he didn’t take this into consideration. Because that’s exactly what privilege is, and does.
Most concerning to me, however, as I suspect it will be most concerning to the readership of the Monthly, is the way in which the video feeds the romantic myth of the ‘starving artist’.
According to the interviewees, from the beginning, part of Death by Audio’s allure was its location: it was a semi-abandoned building that the landlord couldn’t really rent out for other purposes, and so the tenants were able to live in and renovate the building cheaply, without having to worry about noise complaints.
The interviewees who lived in the building spend a lot of time recounting their living conditions, laughing at the uncomfortable and frankly unsafe environment.
When telling the story of a time ‘raw sewage’ seeped from the ceiling and soaked one tenant’s living space, everyone laughs and jokes about it, telling us how ‘funny’ it was to see. One gets the sense that living in substandard housing is a game for these men, that they treat it as a fun adventure, all part of the artistic ‘no rules’ experience of running Death by Audio.
And I suppose that’s all well and good, if that is how they wish to see it, but their attitude unwittingly makes light of those who cannot choose to not live in such conditions, and of the all-too-common experience of artists who struggle to make ends meet. Again, I do not think the film is intentionally mocking poverty; I think it is simply blinkered by privilege and that blunts whatever edge the film hoped to relay.
“Goodnight Brooklyn:Death by Audio” – was shown in The Green Room, Black Box, Belfast Sunday 22 January as part of the Out to Lunch Festival
Kayla Rush is an American living in Belfast. She is currently PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Queen’s University, where she is currently writing her doctoral thesis on community arts in Northern Ireland. She is also plays the French horn in several local ensembles. You can find her on Twitter here: @KaylaRush728