Penn State film studies graduates bond over ‘R.E.M. by MTV’ documentary

Penn State film-studies graduates Dave Leopold and Alex Young pored through arvhice material to put together the “R.E.M. by MTV” documentary. From left are Leopold, Young and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.
Penn State film-studies graduates Dave Leopold and Alex Young pored through arvhice material to put together the “R.E.M. by MTV” documentary. From left are Leopold, Young and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. Photo provided

Dave Leopold and Alex Young bonded over their love of American rock band R.E.M., though it was years after they graduated — without even knowing each other — from Penn State.

The Penn State film graduates recently released “R.E.M. by MTV,” a documentary about R.E.M. The film solidifies two lifelong fans of the band as expert documentary filmmakers.

The film students — Leopold of the Class of 2001 and Young of 2002 — took some of the same classes but didn’t meet until crossing professional paths.

“It wasn’t until when we were here (working) at MTV that we met and realized we were both Penn Staters,” Leopold, the film’s editor, said. “It was a strange coincidence when we realized we’d probably occupied the same seats near each other without ever knowing one another.”

The pair said they were thrilled to learn of the R.E.M. project.

“I’ve been a fan since I was in high school,” said Young, the documentary’s director.. “It’s all seemed very surreal. Whether or not it was even going to happen was always up in the air. This project started out as mainly a compilation DVD of performances, but we were asked to explore the possibility of a documentary even though neither of us had ever done something like this before. The idea that this would one day become a feature-length thing that would play in a theater seemed sort of absurd.”

Hundreds of hours of archival footage collected over the band’s expansive career made the job a labor of love.

“We just started digging through the massive library we had,” Young said. “It just built and built. Early on, I don’t think we even wanted to entertain the idea this could be the real thing, it seemed too good (to be true). We worked very closely with the band’s manager, Bertis Downs. He’s been with them since the second show ever.”

From “A Month of Saturdays” to “Zither”

The documentary focuses on the band’s 31-year career, from formation to dissolution.

“We start at the very beginning and go to the very end,” Young said. “We used all archival footage. We were lucky that there were a few programs over the years that had followed the band’s career up to those points. In the beginning, we didn’t know what this was going to be, but then we started watching tapes and realized the story was already there.”

When asked about the band’s breakup in 2011, and what it meant to fans, Leopold was upbeat and positive about the method in which the band exited the music scene.

“I was glad to see it happen in a way befitting the band,” Leopold said. “It wasn’t like this guy sued or this guy or overdosed or anything like that. And, I didn’t really see them becoming a Rolling Stones type, where they just tour forever. They’ve always been a band that does things on their own terms. Do it any other way would seem odd, to say the least.”

Full-on fanboys

The two quickly become gushing fanboys in discussing the Athens, Ga., rock quartet.

“The first album that was really significant to me when I was growing up was (1991’s) ‘Out of Time,’ ” Leopold said. “I had known some of their songs before that, but that was the one that really hooked me and turned me into a lifelong fan. As we were (working on the project), it was exciting to get to the era of that record and tell the story of ‘Out of Time.’ ”

“ ‘Monster’ (released in 1994) was the first album that got me in,” Young said. “The interesting thing about this project was that I got to just immerse myself in R.E.M music the whole time we’ve been working on this documentary. It’s really revealed to me some songs that maybe I missed the first time around..”

Accelerate the accolades

The filmmakers both have dayjobs at Viacom, and they said they dedicated large portions of their free time and personal life to launch this project. But the extra work paid off with nods of approval from R.E.M.

“Part way through the process, we had a rough cut and we got word that Michael (Stipe, lead singer) liked it, which was mindblowing,” Leopold said. “And then we had a screening where Michael and (bassist) Mike Mills came. I know Mills hadn’t seen it prior to that, and he enjoyed it and told us so. I believe Bill (Berry) has seen it; I think he got a DVD and he seems fine with it. I don’t know if Peter (Buck, guitarist) has seen it yet.”

In addition to positive reviews from inside camp R.E.M., fans and consumers have taken a liking to the film.

“The Twitter reaction has been great.” Leopold said. “People seem to be very positive about it, and I always check the twitter feeds when it airs on Palladia or VH1 Classic.”