The Fearless Freaks: The Wondrously Improbable Story of the Flaming Lips is an all-access fan’s valentine as artfully scrappy and likably wide-eyed as its subjects. In an eccentric two-decade career, these Okie psych-rock Don Quixotes have morphed from—as they admit—”a no-talent hillbilly-punk version of the Who” to stereophonic mad scientists (with boombox orchestras and the four-CDs-at-once Zaireeka) to messianic space-pop humanists (on the pre-millennial masterpiece The Soft Bulletin) to Grammy winners (for 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). Filmmaker Bradley Beesley, a friend and neighbor of chief Lip Wayne Coyne, proceeds more or less chronologically, cutting together intimate chats, home movies, concert footage, and the lo-fi, high-concept music videos he co-directed with Coyne. Beesley lingers nostalgically on the sub-Buttholes shockcore and highly flammable shows of the lean years—the doc is nearly halfway through before the band signs to Warner’s and scores the immortalized-on-90210 fluke (“She Don’t Use Jelly”) that keeps them on the label through their dicey mid-’90s experiments.
Beesley’s doting, democratic approach de-emphasizes the Lips’ triumphant shape-shifts (if anything, the doc understates the sun-lifting miracle that was The Soft Bulletin), but he compensates with some candid material—most painfully, a long sequence of drummer Steven Drozd preparing to shoot up. While Drozd’s matter-of-fact confession is the film’s showstopper, the genial, graying Coyne serves as its de facto host: He takes us on a tour of the “ghetto-esque” neighborhood where he grew up and still lives (Fearless Freaks is named for the Coyne brothers’ daredevil touch-football league), dispenses tips on dealing with fake-blood stains (soak in cold water), and hilariously recounts a robbery at the Long John Silver’s where he once worked (it’s now a Vietnamese noodle shop, and the proprietor’s kids help out with the dramatic re-enactment). In the most enticing segment, Beesley checks in on the band’s years-in-the-making sci-fi opus Christmas on Mars—filmed in Wayne’s backyard, without a script and with sets assembled from local scrap heaps: Based on these sneak peeks, it could well be a 21st-century Plan 9 From Outer Space.