Two Penn State alumni produced, directed and edited the feature-length documentary of alternative rock group R.E.M. that was released this week as part of the band’s six-disc DVD boxset.
Titled “R.E.M. by MTV,” the documentary chronicles the career of the band in its own words and after the review of more than 1,500 tapes provided by band members or utilized from the library of MTV, VH1 and related outlets.
R.E.M., founded in Athens, Georgia, in 1980, built its indie rock credentials, rose to national and international prominence with a distinctive sound, was at one point called “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band“ by Rolling Stone and helped reshape rock music during a career that lasted until the band announced its retirement in 2011.
Alumnus Alex Young, who earned film-video and English degrees from Penn State in 2002, produced and directed the documentary. Fellow alum Dave Leopold, who earned his film-video degree in 2001, edited the film.
Young and Leopold met and work at MTV, with Young as a director, content production group and Leopold as director of post-production, content production group. They have worked together on numerous projects at MTV, but this R.E.M. documentary was special because they’re fans.
“We’re both big fans and we jumped at the chance to be a part of the project,” Leopold said of the film comprised entirely of archival material with no narration.
“We found a lot of things we did not know existed,” Young said. “We knew of some things that we had seen ourselves, but there was so much content available.”
Young started work on the project first, conducting research and compiling material about a year ago. Leopold joined the effort later and by early February they had a rough cut that lasted a little more than an hour ready for MTV executives, band members and the band’s management to preview.
“We were continuing to work on our normal projects, so the late summer got pretty busy,” Young said. “Still, it was exciting because the feedback from that initial group was so positive.”
A final cut was delivered Sept. 12, although they continued to make additions and edits before the film made its debut in early November in New York City. Other screenings followed leading up to the Nov. 24 release of the boxset. The most recent screenings -- three of them in one day -- happened Nov. 23 in Athens, Georgia. In addition, the film has already been shown on VH1 Classic and Palladia.
“It’s been really gratifying to see the reaction of the fans, and especially when the fans or friends of the band at the screenings laugh at jokes they should laugh at or react in the way we did in the editing process,” Young said. “There’s a sense of familiarity and warmth there for fans.”
Additionally, the approach and style of the documentary give it a memory-filled, warm feel. Because much of the footage available was not in high definition, the filmmakers embraced that character.
“Some of it does not hold up as well as HD. That said, once you’re two minutes into this, you’re into it,” Young said. “The texture of those old clips I think sets the tone. And if you look at the graphics and packaging, you can see we ran with that motif.”
Along with the documentary, Young and Leopold helped prepare more than 12 hours of additional content for the boxset.
For Leopold, the project was a labor of love and, potentially, a start of things to come for MTV, which has an immense archival library that remains undigitized. With all that material available, he thinks similar artist- or band-focused documentaries could follow, with “R.E.M. by MTV” as a model.
“It’s pretty exciting. Hopefully this documentary will open up an opportunity for us to be involved in similar projects and help decide what types of things go to the front of the line,” Leopold said. “There’s really a big push to get all this content digitized. There’s just a wealth of material that hasn’t been touched for years, and we can find a way to share it in a way that’s really meaningful.”
The entire R.E.M. boxset, “REMTV,” is available for purchase online and in retail outlets.