‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’ is a love letter to rock, New York City and the early 2000s

The documentary premiered at the IFC Center on Nov. 3 and will be available to stream on Showtime on Nov. 29.

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Still from the documentary “Meet Me in the Bathroom.” The film is a tribute to three rock bands based in New York at the turn of the century. (Courtesy of Utopia)

Ferris Elaraby, Contributing Writer

New York City has been home to some of the most influential bands of the 20th century, including The Velvet Underground, The Ramones and Blondie. At the turn of the 21st century, the city gave way to a rock renaissance, helmed by The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Meet Me in the Bathroom” not only chronicles the explosive success of these three bands, but also the rapidly shifting landscape of both the music industry and New York City.

Like the 2000s rock scene, “Meet Me in the Bathroom” starts out small before expanding its scope to encompass the mass appeal of the bands it depicts. The documentary effectively  portrays these bands in their infancy. Its select soundbites and footage starkly juxtapose against the larger-than-life nature of these bands.

The documentary opens with footage of The Moldy Peaches — a small, two-person band — rehearsing in their cramped apartment and greeting their neighbors. They eventually meet a pre-fame Julian Casablancas and his band, The Strokes, as they drunkenly wreak havoc in the subway at 3 a.m. Meanwhile, Karen O and Nick Zinner share a cigarette on a stoop while brainstorming song ideas for their newly formed band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. 

“Meet Me In the Bathroom” consists almost entirely of never-before-seen footage from the time period it so painstakingly immerses audiences in. The grainy, DIY cinematography never wears out its welcome, and adds to the film’s visceral and nostalgic portrayal of grungy dive bar concerts in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Of course, this overreliance on old footage and soundbites can lead “Meet Me in the Bathroom” to lose the journalistic capabilities that other documentaries show off, instead feeling like a blurry, archival fever dream.

While it may be a stylistically accurate, if not rose-tinted depiction of the early 2000s New York City rock scene, it’s fair to say that the documentary loses some clarity and objectivity in its portrayal of its featured musicians and bands due to its stylistically bold choices. Of course, this isn’t to say that “Meet Me in the Bathroom” has no substance, as it takes the time to explore the anxieties of both band life and New York life.

Rather early on in the documentary, “Meet Me in the Bathroom” features a shocking, heart-rending segment portraying 9/11 and its aftermath in the city. Both the footage and the sound design are soul-shattering, as viewers watch New Yorkers sift through the ash as Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches tears up while singing “Anthrax.” The moving moment isn’t depicted solely for the sake of tragedy, but to also explain how the city’s music community created more communal spaces to express their grief via music, as well as their move away from Manhattan and toward Brooklyn.

“Meet Me in the Bathroom” also slows down to focus on the neuroses of prominent figures of the bands it features. It’s interesting to see behind the veil of the massive success of The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. While Casablancas discusses the discouraging effects of his relentless perfectionism, as well as his distaste for the “too-cool-for-school” image prescribed to him by the media, Karen O deals with perverted paparazzi and carrying the weight of being the female lead of a rock band. While these are compelling stories, they aren’t necessarily surprising or new, given Casablancas’ and Karen O’s massive fame. 

The stories feel more illuminating when they focus on slightly lesser known figures. Paul Banks is constantly trying to prove Interpol’s worth while answering questions about the Strokes; James Murphy struggles to fit in with the music community before forming LCD Soundsystem; and Albert Hammond Jr. is too insecure to share his music with the rest of The Strokes.

While “Meet Me in the Bathroom” takes the time to slow down the booze-fueled adrenaline rush of concert footage to focus on these more tender stories, it does not dedicate enough time to each story. The documentary’s breezy pace, often adding to its break-neck fun, felt like its greatest enemy in these moments.

“Meet Me in the Bathroom” is by no means a perfect documentary. At times, it feels like it prioritizes style over substance, nostalgia over objectivity, and boozy, headbanging fun over clear and coherent storytelling. However, it’s so rare for a documentary to completely immerse its audience in its world and time period — to make them feel like they’re among the crowd at an early Interpol concert, or stumbling through the subway with The Strokes, or singing with The Moldy Peaches in their sorry excuse for an apartment. 

Despite its varying levels of success, it’s clear that a great deal of care and passion went into this project and its distinct storytelling style. As “Meet Me in the Bathroom” closes out with a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Give Me The Splendid, Silent Sun” over romantic footage of the city, it’s hard not to feel that same passion and love for rock, New York City and the early 2000s.

Contact Ferris Elaraby at [email protected]