In 1990 Jane’s Addiction were a huge alternative rock band recently signed to a major label, a combination which invariably leads to two things: epic drug use and unfettered artistic indulgence. Both are rife in Gift, the circuitous tale of a rock-star whose girlfriend dies of an overdose, co-directed by and co-starring the band’s singer Perry Farrell and his then-girlfriend Casey Niccoli who play fictionalised versions of their ridiculously photogenic selves in bohemian downtown LA. On finding Niccoli’s body, we follow Farrell through flashbacks of their relationship. But Gift isn’t so much a feature film as a string of set pieces which slip in and out of the narrative, effectively a music video writ large. It is, to say the least, a strange mix. There are disastrously overcooked comedy scenes featuring the band’s stock S&M-loving yuppie manager alongside absorbing cinéma vérité observations a roomful of candid rehab patients; there’s the standard muso-doc fare with the band recording their second studio album Ritual de lo Habitual and performing lead single ‘Stop!’ live at the Hollywood Palladium alongside what constitute Gift's plot: close-up heroin use, full-frontal nudity and necrophilia.
Given the subject matter it’s perhaps not entirely surprising to learn that Gift had trouble reaching its audience. The film languished in the Warner Brothers’ editing suite for three years before sneaking out in a US-only direct-to-VHS release, by which time the band had dissolved and the film’s starring couple had gone through an acrimonious break-up amid disagreements over who was the more creatively responsible for the film.
Needless to say, this is the sort of enterprise which should only really work if you’re a dedicated fan of the band, but Gift’s waywardness along with cinematographer Eric Edwards’ eye for a shot (elsewhere Edwards has worked with Larry Clarke and Gus Van Sant), bestow on the film a lo-fi stylishness and a likeable indie poignancy, something which doesn’t necessarily require a knowledge or even an appreciation of Jane’s Addiction (one of my favourite scenes can be found here). As a document on the early 90’s alt-Hollywood landscape Gift is something of a one-off, providing a fictive eye on how the fun-loving, hedonistic days of party-rock excess would inevitably give way to the introspection, self-loathing and self-destruction of the grunge scene.
But whose film was it? A couple of years ago Farrell was invited to attend a 25-year anniversary screening. According to reports, when asked about the filmmaking process behind Gift, he seemed entirely indifferent to the picture, claiming not to have seen it since its original screening and instead talked at length about his incredible sex life and ongoing drug use. Indeed, he seemed uninterested in cinema as a whole, saying he only watches films on long-haul tour flights. He even went out of his way to badmouth his former co-star, claiming he’d known their Mexican wedding – which forms the heart of the film – would be void in the States, something of which Niccoli was ignorant.
Niccoli herself drifted into obscurity, taking up regular fulltime work, becoming a mother and leaving her drug-rock days behind her. But she continued to quietly champion the film. And, it should be noted, has form: she has directed music videos, including one for Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Been Caught Stealing’ which beat REM's 'Losing My Religion' at the 1991 MTV Awards.
I think I know whose film I’d prefer Gift to be.