‘This Is a Film About the Black Keys’ Review: The Duo That Rocks Together Stays Together, Even Amid Communication Breakdowns

The Black Keys named one of their most popular albums “Brothers,” which seems on the face of it to be a positive statement of purpose and, obviously, fraternalism between the rock duo’s two members, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. But the question remains: what kind of brothers? Like, Oasis’ battling Gallaghers, or some gentler brand of bros? It’s a question fans will think about after seeing “This Is a Film About the Black Keys,” an engaging music documentary that trains a spotlight on some lesser-known, historical tensions between the two as well as what binds them. One thing is clear: In the Black Keys, ebony and ivory don’t always live together in perfect harmony.

The term “arranged marriage” is invoked more than once in the film for the relationship between Carney and Auerbach, which seems a little strange, based on what we know of the duo’s shared biography. Because didn’t they grow up as childhood friends living a few doors from one another in Akron, before forming a two-man group that had a very, very gradual rise to fame? All of this would seem to have allowed for plenty of courtship time before the pressures of fame added a third wheel to the relationship. But director Jeff Dupre’s movie makes it repeatedly clear: These are men we’re talking about. And men don’t talk. Well, that’s not exactly true — Carney, the voluble drummer, is actually rather famous for running his mouth. (The film devotes a couple of minutes to a silly 2014 controversy where Carney made a quip about Justin Bieber to a TMZ crew, and spent the next year getting bashed by Beliebers.) But discuss their feelings about each other, or the future of the group? That’s a whole other thing among musicians whose old-fashioned work credo seems to be: more rock, less talk.

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“This Is a Film About the Black Keys” (which bases its prosaic title on the plainspoken verbiage on the cover of that bestselling “Brothers” album) is a little bit old-fashioned itself, in that it’s about the making and breaking of an actual rock band. There haven’t been many major mainstream rock acts that have broken big this century, at least not that have some widely accepted cred, the way this heavily blues-influenced unit does. The Black Keys seem like they’ve been around longer than the 22 years or so they have, and so, if you’re thinking of them as grizzled and middle-aged, which they are, it’s kind of startling to experience the freshness of the digital footage of them as baby-faced aspirants.

It appears as if someone had been shooting B-roll footage at every step of the way, which makes this the rare backstage doc where the director can show you what was going right or wrong along the way, without always having to rely on the telling. But there are plenty of storytellers plugged in, as well, from Beck, the rock star who adopted them as a favorite opening act, to early agents and critics, to Auerbach’s first wife, who is given a surprising opportunity to explain how always playing second fiddle to the Keys’ career hastened their divorce. (Other ex-spouses and girlfriends, including Carney’s third wife, singer Michelle Branch, aren’t included.)

Illustrating the fact that Auerbach and Carney could and did get on each other’s nerves when the music stopped, there’s a very funny split-screen sequence — maybe the best use of split-screen in a rock doc since “Woodstock,” actually — in which we see their divergent personalities on the first day of their very first arena tour. Carney is on stage for a sound check, stewing that the mix sounds all wrong and his partner is nowhere to be found; Auerbach is seen happily shopping at a vintage store for the studded leather jacket he’ll debut on stage that night. The sequence has “This Marriage Is Doomed” written all over it.

And yet it wasn’t, even though things got to the point where the Black Keys had a five-year lapse between albums in the late 2010s where, says Carney, “I maybe spoke to Dan twice, maybe exchanged less than 10 text messages over three years.” (Presumably their worried managers were communicating a little more than that.) There was no talk of disbanding the group, Carney explains. It was just “Let’s see other people for a while.” At some point, Auerbach texted Carney a photo of a dreary cloudscape from the hometown they love/hate, Akron, and that was all the rapprochement they needed to reunite. It’s like a sweet ending to a version of “This Is Spinal Tap” in which the heroes are more intellectually developed, even if they might be about as clueless about how to actually actively engage one another.

In the end, says Auerbach, “We’ve figured each other out, for the most part… We’re just two very opinionated, hard-headed people, trapped for eternity together.” There’s not really much evidence onscreen that these guys have come to any great realization about one another that is going to grease the wheels for all time, no real last-act epiphany arrives that convinces you they’re any less likely to have a serious schism now than they did in 2015 (or in 2008 before that, when Auerbach finished his first solo album without letting his partner know). “Being people who don’t like to communicate makes it hard,” Carney allows. It feels like the two musicians are talking about their relationship more to Dupre’s cameras than they probably ever have with each other, but if that leaves some lingering questions about their state of the union, it does make for a pretty good rock ‘n’ roll buddy movie.

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