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Black Keys Documentary Covers Highs, Lows & Three Years of Not Talking

It’d be easy enough for the Black Keys — singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — to remain in rock star mode at this point in their career. After all, they’ve reached the top of their craft: radio hits, arena tours, festival headlining slots, and twelve albums. But that vibe doesn’t reflect their modest Ohio upbringing.

“The average person might just be familiar with a couple of our hit songs and not know the story,” Carney said. “To be able to have a true document that shows all the work and things that went into that was interesting, so you have to tell the actual story.”

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The duo shares their tale — warts and all — in the new rock doc “This Is a Film About the Black Keys,” which debuted at SXSW on Monday. The film traces the band’s origin, starting with two young men brought together by circumstance in the Akron music scene, to a broke touring band that steadily grew a fanbase but couldn’t elevate to the next level.

But the big leagues came calling when the band started inviting collaborators into their insular studio sessions, adding different textures to their bluesy rock. Although the ethos led to rock stardom they never imagined, it also encouraged behavior they now look back on as cringe, such as not licensing their music for an advertisement out of a vague fear of “selling out,” and arguing with longtime collaborator Danger Mouse during early sessions.

Director Jeff Dupre, who had previously worked with the band on the 2016 series “Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music,” was able to see that the band was willing to go deep and reflect on failure as well as success.

“When you start off with a film like this, you always are concerned,” he said. “‘Are they gonna spill the beans?’ But on day one, I interviewed Patrick and thought ‘Oh, wow, we’re going to have a film here.”

The Black Keys’ magic lies in Auerbach and Carney’s almost supernatural ability to communicate with each other musically — and frequent inability to speak to each other about the important stuff, without instruments. One notable crack in the armor came when Auerbach recorded an entire solo debut — the tellingly named 2009 record “Keep It Hid” — without letting his bandmate know.

Moments like that — coupled with exhaustion from touring and drama in their personal lives — led to a three-year hiatus for the band in 2015, during which the duo only texted each other a handful of times. They reconnected for the 2019 album “Let’s Rock” — poking fun at their communication issues in the therapy-themed video for their single “Go” — and Auerbach, the quieter member of the pair, said that their bond remains strong despite ups and downs.

“The reality is that Pat and I have been together longer than most bands, and we’ve also been together longer than most marriages,” he said. “There’s probably no one I can talk to in a real way more than Pat. That’s just how it is.”

Carney agreed that any friction was an essential step in keeping their partnership strong.

“This stuff just needs to happen, and we figured it all out,” he said. “When you’re in a musical partnership, you’ve accomplished all this stuff, it could be a difficult conversion. ‘Hey, I want to make some music with these other musicians who are talented.’ But that’s the kind of shit you’ve got to get through if you want to have a successful, creative situation that doesn’t feel restricted. So we’re far beyond that.”

And the band – which named their fan-favorite 2010 album “Brothers” to illustrate their bond — is able to poke fun at themselves and past drama in the film. In one awkward-funny scene, Carney is upset that Auerbach is late to soundcheck before a big show, before the camera cuts to the guitarist casually shopping for leather jackets at the same time, not a care in the world. He ends up purchasing a studded vintage number before ambling back to the venue.

For a less evolved band, being asked about this moment could be grating, but they’re past that now. Instead, they can focus on the important things.

“The jacket’s sick,” Carney said.

“When our sons replace us, they could wear them,” Auerbach quips.

Then look at each other and laugh — two brothers who can’t help but be bonded for life.

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