Artifact is a documentary produced and directed by Jared Leto (under the name Bartholomew Cubbins) about his band 30 Seconds to Mars and their legal struggles with EMI Records. It is part exposé regarding mainstream record label practices, part “making of” documentary as the band creates their latest album amid these legal struggles. It may be an interesting film for fans of Jared Leto or his band, but for anyone else it falls woefully short.
It is an incredibly biased film in favor of 30 Seconds to Mars (unsurprisingly given that the film was entirely produced by the band), is overlong, unfocused, inconsistent, and not particularly well made. While the film aims to uncover the corruption of the major record labels and the mistreatment of their musical artists for their own gain, the film is just as much a marketing tool to promote the band and their new album, which somewhat tarnishes Leto’s good intentions.
It is particularly frustrating to witness the ideals promoted by the film when contrasted with Leto’s ultimate decision to settle with EMI. Leto bemoans the state of the music industry, the manipulation of artists, the purgatory of record label feudalism – and he is obviously right to do so. There is no doubt that EMI and its main competitors (Sony, Universal, and Warner) have some shady business practices when it comes to giving its artists their fair share. However, 30 Seconds to Mars is the wrong band to tell that story.
Idealistic as Leto claims to be, if they weren’t in it for the money there would never be any question of re-signing with EMI, let alone signing with yet another big label once EMI went under. But 30 Seconds to Mars is simply not that kind of band, no matter how much they would like to portray themselves as the struggling artists. They are a very specific kind of band, with a very specific kind of fan base, and who are used to a very specific kind of lifestyle.
Leto considers dropping EMI and going it alone, but he fears that success is impossible without the aid of a major label. He asks his brother to name one artist who dropped their label to release on their own and remained successful, and he can’t name one. The fact that they can’t think of any reveals not only a lack of imagination, but also exactly what 30 Seconds to Mars defines as success.
Surely acts like Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Madonna, and David Byrne should qualify as successful artists – not to mention Sufjan Stevens who has only ever released music through his own label. These musicians are undoubtedly successful, not to mention acclaimed, but they simply don’t make the money to support the glamorous lifestyle that a major record label provides, and that’s what holds 30 Seconds to Mars back. Undeniably, the band has a level of popularity that would guarantee large scale sales of their work, regardless of how and through what label the music is ultimately released, so their fears concerning striking out on their own seem contrived and unfounded – a feeling which is only reinforced when Leto abandons his ideals to sign another deal with EMI.
The documentary itself is unfocused, moving back and forth between the frankly uninteresting “making of” segments and the one-sided music industry exposé. One flows into the other rather awkwardly, one always feeling like filler for the other, which also contributes to the film feeling overly long. Unfortunately, the marketing ploy of the “making of” works to somewhat undercut the genuineness of the exposé, which ultimately works against the band to expose where their true interests lie – in the money.
Leto is constantly undercutting his own conclusions by juxtaposing the band’s decisions with interviews that support the opposite choice. One almost wonders if Leto made this documentary as a massive, retrospective satire criticizing the decisions that the band made, or whether the contradictory commentary was all just unintentional. In addition to the unfocused structure, there are a number of exasperating attempts to add artistic flair to the film, including transition shots of time lapse clouds, Leto looking pensively into the distance, spiders crawling along the studio floor.
One particularly tiresome sequence combines time lapse and stop motion photography with motion blurred, over-exposed shots of the studio captured in a series of nauseating quick panning movements. One gets the feeling that there wasn’t enough material, even between the two focuses, to bring this film to feature length. And while music is undeniably a matter of personal taste, I would venture to say that their musical talents (or lack thereof) do not merit the time which is dedicated to it in the film.
\Perhaps they would have done better to leave the marketing ploys behind and settle for making a short documentary about the music industry. But then we would have lost out on the chance to examine all the manifestations of greed in the music industry. It perhaps on that level that this documentary works, – though not as Leto might have intended – as an all-encompassing, unbiased examination of greed in mainstream music.