SXSW Film Review: Goodnight Brooklyn

By Andrew Nogay
SXSW Street Team

Photo courtesy of Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio.
Photo courtesy of Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio.

Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio was a documentary feature that played at this year’s South by Southwest Festival and there isn’t another movie that was more fitting for KTSW to cover.

Goodnight Brooklyn is about a guitar pedal company, Death by Audio, and how the warehouse and unofficial living area for its employees transformed into one of the best underground music venues in the country and how that venue closed down. However, this movie isn’t just about the opening and closing of an underground music venue; it’s about the creation of a subculture, the benefits and trappings of a DIY ethic, gentrification, the importance of art and creativity and different people find happiness.

The first half of Goodnight Brooklyn details the history of Death by Audio from about 2005 to 2014. It was founded by Oliver Ackermann as a handmade effect pedal company that eventually became pretty notable. Bands as famous as U2 and Nine Inch Nails use Death by Audio pedals. The employees of Death by Audio lived in the building the company was based out of in some warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. Then, in 2007, Matt Conboy, one of Death by Audio’s workers and the director of this film, opened a free space in the warehouse as a music venue. As it happened, Ackermann played in a band, A Place to Bury Strangers, that began to get real attention, so the venue was validated rather early on because of the numerous shows A Place to Bury Strangers would play there. Eventually Edan Wilber was added as the sound technician and Death by Audio’s reputation grew to the point that media outlets as well-known as MTV recognized them as one of the best underground music venues.

In this first part of the documentary, the scenes seem to switch from showing the success Death by Audio was having, to showing how hard they all worked to get to that point, to showing how absurd the entire thing was. They were living, after all, in a warehouse that legally wasn’t supposed to be a living space, probably for fair reasons. There’s a story that is recounted of a time when a sewage pipe busted open and poured on some poor guy while he was sleeping in his room. It is not a standard way of living, but watching this documentary will have you thinking that these guys wouldn’t want it any other way. The footage of this time is primarily from interviews, home movies and other documentaries made about Death by Audio. That’s right, they were cool enough to get more than one documentary made about them.

The second half of Goodnight Brooklyn deals with Death by Audio in the months leading up to their closure and the last run of shows they put on before the venue shut down. Vice Media, of all companies, ended up buying the building they operated out of and at the end of 2014, Death by Audio shut down. This is the period when the documentary began filming, as Matt Conboy decided to document the last few shows that Death by Audio put on. There are quite a few concerts documented and this is where the meat of the documentary is.

The basic function of any documentary is to inform, but it needs moments to move things along and create a narrative. The reason why Goodnight Brooklyn works is because it does have moments, some fantastic moments. One of these comes when A Place to Bury Strangers plays a show in the last month of Death by Audio and the camera follows Ackermann as he leaves the stage, goes down a hallway, then enters the workshop and says something along the lines of “time to get back to work,” and starts working on effect pedals. It’s a funny, friendly scene that shows a little bit of life of Death by Audio.

There are also some more heart-wrenching moments. One of these comes near the end, when the construction Vice is doing on the building busts a water pipe and Conboy’s room is sprayed with liquid. He angrily yells “Everything I own is wet!,” as we see insert shots of soaked laptops, records, furniture, etc. His room is already not fancy by any means, it didn’t seem much smaller than a large closet. The building wasn’t made to be lived in, after all. Vice also had already won; Death by Audio was moving out of the building in about a month, despite their resentment. From the perspective of Conboy, that was almost like rubbing it in.

The most heart-wrenching moment of the film, and what could be seen as the thesis of the film, comes later, from Wilbur. He is talking about reading some business article that talks about Vice buying the building and how Death by Audio didn’t maximize the profits of its prime, hip Brooklyn location. He breaks down, lamenting the trivializing of what Death by Audio did, of the memories he has and the life he built there. He says that he is richer in so many more ways than money can describe because of Death by Audio, and that is the point of the film: what these people created isn’t monetary, but made a real impact in their lives and the lives of others.

Photo courtesy of Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio.
Photo courtesy of Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio.

Some of those others include bands who got their start playing at Death by Audio. These are pretty well-known bands as well, such as Ty Segall, Protomartyr, Future Islands, Thee Oh Sees and more. Basically a good portion of the bands KTSW plays on air owe something to Death by Audio, and many of them are documented in this film playing in the last few weeks of the venue. Sam Herring, the singer for Future Islands, especially has some great bits in this film. However, just about all the bands in the film show huge respect for Death by Audio and talk derisively of Vice taking over the space.

The irony of Vice, a media outlet that is supposed to be dedicated to underground news and music, causing the end of an actually important underground music establishment did not sit well with the main people of this film. Between the time when Death by Audio opened and when they closed, their Williamsburg neighborhood became incredibly trendy, thanks to places like Death by Audio. Then, these smaller places were priced out and overtaken by bigger entities, just because they had the desire to do more than just make money.

Despite being made by one of the main characters of Death by Audio’s story, Goodnight Brooklyn seems to manage to be as objective as possible. If the movie didn’t tell you Conboy was the director, the audience would likely have little idea who made this film. There are concerns that this film doesn’t tell the whole story, or only tries to tell one side of it, but this documentary would not work as well if it weren’t so personal. This is an emotional film and it focuses on the people more than a straight timeline story. But it also has ideas that go beyond just a story and people, and that is what separates Goodnight Brooklyn as a film.

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