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It is an odd coincidence, to say the least, that one of the world’s leading streaming sites chooses to release a movie about the Eurovision Song Context in the first year since the ESC’s inception that it hasn’t actually been run. Whether or not David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a worthy substitute for the actual show will probably depend on what you think of it – always assuming you’re the kind of person who actually feels the absence of Eurovision in your life.

But hey, let us not forget: people from all over the world read this blog (and are left equally unimpressed) and it may just be possible that you don’t actually know what the Eurovision Song Contest is. Hmmm. Well, born out of a desire to increase international amity and prevent another war, Eurovision marks the one night of the year when the nations of Europe (or at least those who belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which includes some definite outliers when it comes to what ‘European’ actually means) come together and… sing songs to each other. First comes the best bit: the songs. Six people max on stage, no politics, any language is permissible, and your singer doesn’t actually have to be a native of the nation they’re representing: hence Celine Dion turning out for Switzerland in 1988. Then comes the other best bit: the voting. An international snake-pit of bias and partiality, a mixture of total predictability and wildly random choices. One year Norway won with an instrumental. Another, Finland entered a heavy metal band dressed as Orcs with exploding guitars and won by a record margin. There are even rumours that the UK may have won at some point, back in the mists of antiquity. It’s totally absurd and (yet?) strangely wonderful.

For the wider world, of course, Eurovision’s most famous alumni are ABBA, who won the contest in 1974. The movie opens on this night, with the people of the small Icelandic town of Husavik gathering to watch the show, although recently-widowed local eminence Erick Erickssong (Pierce Brosnan) is rather disapproving. However, the sound of Bjorn and the others is enough to lift the spirits of his son Lars, and sparks a life-long love of the contest.

Forty-something years later, Lars (Will Ferrell) is the town’s parking attendant by day, and an aspiring musician by night, part of the duo Fire Saga with his friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), whom he’s pretty sure is not his sister. His father still seems consumed by contempt for him, though. Will all this change when opportunity knocks, and – through a fairly unlikely series of events – Fire Saga are given the opportunity to go to Edinburgh to represent Iceland at Eurovision? Will his father come to respect him? Will Lars come to recognise his true feelings for Sigrit? Will Iceland’s moment of Eurovision glory finally arrive?

Perhaps I have already given you a clue as what one of the major issues with Fire Saga (not typing that title out in full every time) is: once you strip away all the Eurovision-themed gags and other material, what you are left with is a fairly predictable story of ridiculous underdogs coming good coupled to that of, well, a couple beginning their coupling. Eurovision is largely a backdrop.

Not entirely, however, but the problem here is possibly a UK-specific one. Over twenty years ago the makers of the sitcom Father Ted did a brilliant spoof of Eurovision in one of their episodes. I’m not saying that Fire Saga is knowingly ripping this episode off. I’m just saying the two have suspiciously similar stretches of plot in key areas.

I mean, it’s obvious that Ferrell (who also co-produced and co-wrote, along with Andrew Steele) has done his homework when it comes to Eurovision, which his Swedish wife apparently introduced him to – there are lots of little gags and references to reward devotees of the contest. A group looking suspiciously like the Finnish Orcs briefly appears, as does Demi Lovato as a character with authentic Euro-hair and Euro-cleavage. Dan Stevens turns up as a slick and rather metrosexual Russian entrant; Melissanthi Mahut appears as a cat-suited Greek singer presumably based on Eleni Foureira. They even work in a sequence with Will Ferrell running in a giant hamster wheel. It goes beyond affectionate spoof, though, and things take on a rather smug and self-congratulatory tone with a lengthy sequence where various Eurovision celebs from recent years turn up and sing a medley together – the one who looks like a Swedish Claudia Winkleman crops up, as does the Israeli chicken woman, the Russian chap with the violin, and so on. Is the movie sending Eurovision up or not? It’s hard to tell: the fact that contest director Jon Ola Sand is one of its executive producers suggests  this was never on the agenda. (Even so, the movie gets enough Euro-specifics wrong to annoy actual fans of the contest (I would expect) – if Edinburgh is hosting the show, why are the presenters from eastern Europe? Why is Graham Norton commentating on a semi-final? Why is the voting procedure different?)

On the other hand, I can imagine the entire population of Iceland (that’s nearly 365,000 people) getting justifiably cross with the way their country is depicted as being bankrupt, saddled with a mind-set out of the dark ages, and populated largely by fish-obsessed drunks whose idea of culture is singing along to a song called ‘Yah Yah Ding Dong’. There’s even what seems to be a joke about the Icelandic nation being inbred, though this may just be a different joke that isn’t put across very well.

The ultimate problem with this is that it mostly isn’t actually funny. It’s not a complete desert of mirth, because there are a few funny moments: Pierce Brosnan knows how to handle himself in a comedy (though he’s not permitted to sing), and there’s a very funny cameo from Nadja the Vampire as Fire Saga’s choreographer. Rachel McAdams is also rather better than the script deserves; she is a very capable comic performer and it would be nice to see her get the chance to carry a movie. Here, however, she is saddled with Will Ferrell. (I should also say – and it has taken a few days for this to become apparent – that Husavik, the song McAdams mimes to at the climax (actual vocal by Swedish popstrel Molly Sanden), is one of the genuine musical highlights of the year.)

Now, if we’re talking about bad Will Ferrell comedies, Fire Saga is not as bad as Holmes and Watson, but then you can say the same about a mild case of gangrene. The thing is that Ferrell’s particular style of knowingly ironic stupidity coupled with so-so slapstick has lost most of its freshness. You can see him working hard to find some laughs throughout the movie. But they elude him almost completely.

Compounding this problem is the way in which Fire Saga most accurately captures the Eurovision experience, by seeming to go on forever. A brisk ninety-five minutes is about right for this kind of film – an hour and three quarters at the absolute most. This one goes on for over two hours, and by the end I was feeling every minute of that time.

What are Americans doing making a movie about Eurovision, anyway? The tone is almost patronising, the suggestion that Eurovision is somehow inherently silly. Well – all right, it is, but this film misses the point, which is that something so self-confidently mad really can play a role in bringing the world together. Not having Eurovision this year was one of the genuine (if minor) tragedies of the pandemic. This movie is no substitute: it will not stop you missing Eurovision. If anything, it will make you miss it (ooh ah) a little bit more.

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There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

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Coming out of Us, and still digesting what we had just seen, Olinka and I cast a prospective eye over the posters advertising coming attractions. ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. That’s a good movie,’ she said, indicating a picture of a suited man, his head cropped from the frame, holding a large papier-mache fake head. It looked very much like this:

‘That’s not the Michael Fassbender film,’ I felt obliged to inform her. ‘That’s a documentary about the real guy.’

‘What real guy?’

‘Frank Sidebottom. Chris Sievey,’ I said. ‘He was a… a…’ Words failed me, as I imagine is not uncommon when trying to describe Frank Sidebottom’s act.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Olinka said, Frank Sidebottom’s limited degree of fame in his early-90s heyday not having penetrated the Moscow area, apparently.

Nevertheless, curiosity was piqued, and almost exactly a week later Con-Con and I were hanging around outside the Phoenix waiting for Olinka, who was as usual threatening to be late for the film. I noticed something startling coming down the street in our direction.

‘Oh my God,’ I said.

‘What?’ said Con-Con, looking about her in confusion.

‘Look over there. There’s a man in a Frank Sidebottom head coming this way.’

‘Where? Who?’ Con-Con said, peering vaguely the right way – for all of Con-Con’s many wonderful qualities, her eyesight is not much better than her sense of direction. ‘That’s just a man in a hoodie… oh… no it’s not… ooh, that’s creepy…’

I had some sympathy with this gut reaction. The cinema staff were not overly surprised to hear of this visitation, the Frank-lookalike having informed them he was coming. He had apparently been promised free popcorn if he did indeed actually turn up wearing the head, although the question of how he was actually going to eat it was still open. The fake head, when it arrived, was a slightly funny colour and somewhat squashed-looking, but it was still recognisably an avatar of Frank Sidebottom, and I imagine the people sitting behind its wearer were relieved when he took it off prior to the start of the film.

Normally this sort of thing going on before a low-budget documentary would be quite unusual, but as the film itself makes clear, slightly different standards apply in the world of Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. The focus of the film, produced, directed, edited, and possibly catered by Steve Sullivan, is certainly on the former. Sievey was a dedicated fan of the Beatles (and, to judge from his artwork, the output of Gerry Anderson, Gene Roddenberry and Terry Nation) who from a young age decided to devote his life to music. Preferring to retain complete creative control rather than work within the industry, he was prolific but only marginally successful, fronting a new wave band called The Freshies who seem to have been genuinely unlucky not to get the big break they probably deserved.

The story so far is charmingly weird enough, told through a mixture of interviews and archive material (a taped demo of one of Sievey’s early songs is interrupted by his father, demanding to know when he’s going to wash the car), and documenting a genuinely idiosyncratic career – at one point The Freshies released a single for which the B-side was a ZX-81 program that produced a primitive video for the A-side, while a later incarnation of the band attempted to represent the UK in Eurovision with a song about aeroplane seatbelts.

Things get truly peculiar with the arrival of the Sidebottom phase of Sievey’s career: Frank Sidebottom was conceived as a comedic front enabling Sievey to effectively be his own support act, a freakish, guileless man-child who was The Freshies’ biggest fan. In the end, however, Frank’s own popularity ended up eclipsing that of his creator, and he ended up becoming more successful than The Freshies ever were.

There are many good things about this film, but one of the things it fails to communicate to the uninitiated is just what a deeply strange and disconcerting figure Frank Sidebottom arguably was when he initially rose to fame. Sievey’s name was never mentioned, and he never broke character or removed the head while performing. The vast majority of audiences had no idea who this was, or indeed what he was trying to achieve: Frank Sidebottom’s stage act included stand-up comedy, musical numbers, and (theoretically) ventriloquism. The writer Jon Ronson, a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band, probably gets closest to the truth when he suggests that Sievey was a performance artist, with Sidebottom a sort of animated surrealist installation, bridging the line between the deliberately-bad-for-comic-effect and the genuinely inept.

Frank Sidebottom’s career ran the gamut from Saturday morning kid’s TV (one archive clip shows an encounter between him and Andrea Arnold, later to transition from TV presenter to Oscar-winning film-maker) to playing the Reading Festival in front of a crowd of thousands of fans. But, the film suggests, not all was well inside the head. There is something potentially interesting here, with different interviewees presenting different ideas as to exactly what the relationship between Sievey and Frank actually was – was it just an act, a performance? Or was there something more complicated and psychologically troubled going on? The film is so affectionate towards Sievey – not surprisingly, given various members of his family were involved in making it – that it kind of skates over this issue, although it is strongly implied that Sievey grew to resent the popularity of Frank, considering him to be a limit on his other creative ambitions.

One of the things that the film does make absolutely clear is the ceaseless creativity which characterised Sievey throughout his life: music, comedy, art, animation, film-making, examples of all of them are on display. It seems like he never really stopped, regardless of whether the piece in question was intended for public consumption or not – Frank Sidebottom started his own football team in the early 1990s, and despite this being an amateur, Sunday-league side, Sievey produced match programmes packed with detail, jokes and art solely for his own amusement.

You have to admire and perhaps be just a tiny bit jealous of that kind of relentless creative fire – that’s how I feel, anyway. The film acknowledges that there was a darker side to Sievey’s life, with friends and family being candid about some of the troubles, particularly in his later years, but this is overall a film filled with love for its subject, expressed by some quite famous faces too – in addition to Ronson, there are contributions from Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble, Mark Radcliffe, John Cooper Clarke, John Thomson, and others, none of whom have a genuinely bad word to say about him.

Sievey’s greatest success as a performer was in his live shows, his chaotic, semi-improvised act never quite transferring to TV (the producers intended to insist on rehearsals, which were not really his thing), and I have to say I was always quite ambivalent towards Frank Sidebottom when he appeared on the box, finding him at least as weird as he was funny. The movie does a good job of proclaiming Sievey to be an overlooked creative genius and possible national treasure; it is touching, funny and very entertaining. Well worth checking out.

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You know how there are people and things in the world who you generally approve of and sort of suspect you might really like, but whom you feel no real driving urge to actually investigate and become familiar with? Well, that’s really how I feel about Nick Cave (if I can get to the end of this review without appearing to go off on an odd and over-familiar tangent about Nicolas Cage, it will be down to a triumph of editing), the Australian singer-songwriter, and sometime novelist, actor, and screenwriter.

Cave has long struck me as My Kind of Artist, despite the fact I know very little of substance about him. For example, I can barely recall the lyrics of his biggest UK hit, Where the Wild Roses Grow, but could probably perform the Shirehorses’ reworking of it, Hapless Boy Lard, without needing to consult notes (sample lyric: ‘They call me the Hapless Boy Lard/Why they call me that I do not know’/’Because you’re a fat gormless pillock’/’Yes, I suppose so’). The opportunity to become at least a little better acquainted arises, however, with the release of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a pseudo-documentary about Cave.

cave

I say pseudo-documentary as this is actually a partially-scripted, carefully assembled film. The central conceit is that the film depicts the 20,000th day in Nick Cave’s life (54, before you start reaching for the abacus, although given he was a bit older when the film was shot some rounding down has obviously taken place), and the camera follows him around his adopted home town of Brighton while his voice-over muses on his identity as an artist and a human being. He visits his therapist, has lunch with old friend and collaborator Warren Ellis (I was initially baffled to discover that the writer of Transmetropolitan, DV8, and Supergod – amongst many others – was also an accomplished musician, but apparently it’s not the same guy), pops in to where his personal archive is being curated, and then performs a gig with his band the Bad Seeds. Intercut with this is some rather more conventional footage of Cave and the band recording some new material – at one point the singer seems about to launch into an unlikely cover of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long but this never materialises – while Cave’s adventures in motoring are spiced up by some of his more notable past collaborators materialising in the car with him for a brief chat: Ray Winstone and Her Kylieness are probably the two best-known of these (according to the credits Kylie brought her own hair and make-up designer to the project, just adding to the not-inappropriate impression that she’s teleported in from another, somewhat more commercial movie).

Okay, so we are somewhat in the realms of the arthouse here, and this is certainly not your conventional rockumentary. Then again, Cave is not your conventional rock star, as anyone who’s heard his brand of apocalyptic blues-rock will testify, but the uniqueness of Cave and his persona is not really an issue here. Not only does he have serious charisma, but he is also clearly a very bright fellow, and his insights into art, celebrity, and the creative process are compellingly presented – needless to say, Cave co-wrote the movie with the directors. Lack of familiarity with Nick Cave and his work is not necessarily a barrier to the enjoyment of this film.

On the other hand, the nature of the film – a very slightly pretentious meander through a fake day, complete with suddenly-manifesting and vanishing celebrity interlocutors – will probably be enough to put some people off it. This is what gives the film its own, very strong identity, though, and one of the most impressive aspects of it is the way that it illustrates many of the things that it is saying. In the interview and spoken-word sections of the film, Cave repeatedly returns to his ideas about the transformative nature of live performance, and his desire to adopt another persona while on stage – and in the footage of live performances that form the closest thing the film has to a climax, the truth of this is unmistakable, Cave’s concerts having something of the intimate, personal intensity of a religious revival, the singer becoming something akin to a preacher on stage, testifying to a mesmerised congregation.

Nick Cave’s involvement in the scripting process means that this is very much the authorised version of the singer’s persona, and genuine insights and surprises into who the singer really is are few and far between – his wife barely appears, for example, and his sons only turn up very briefly (Cave the devoted father is shown watching Scarface with his clearly-underage brood) – but then this was never the intent of the film. And perhaps the very artificiality of the film allows it to be a bit more genuinely revealing about its subject. It didn’t turn me into a raving Cave fan, but it has certainly made me a bit more likely to check out his back catalogue. A very different sort of film, but in a good way.

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I was, believe it or believe it not, a little too young and much too unfashionable to really understand who the Stone Roses were, when their star was first at its zenith. I’m assuming here, of course, that you know who the Stone Roses are and why my relative ignorance might come as a surprise. Maybe this assumption is warranted and maybe it isn’t, but I suspect that this is one of those situations where context is everything – either you will completely understand the importance of this rock group and the cultural moment they embodied, or you will be only vaguely aware of them and their music.

Certainly their sound was everywhere when I was in my late teens, and I feel as though I’ve learned more than a few of their songs simply by a strange musical osmosis – even though I’ve never actually bought one of their recordings. I was even moved to have a crack at a karaoke version of I Am The Resurrection when I was in Japan: something I would not recommend, in hindsight, mainly because I then had to attempt to explain what the lyrics meant to my Japanese friends.

Suffice to say that the Roses were and remain a big and important band for a large group of people, which is why it makes perfect sense for their reformation after sixteen years apart to be the subject of a film. Documenting proceedings is Shane Meadows, director of Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England, and self-confessed massive Stone Roses fan, and the resulting film is – somewhat logically – entitled The Stone Roses: Made of Stone.

roses

Suspicions that this is not going to be quite your bog-standard warts-and-all behind-the-scenes rockumentary arise as the film opens with a clip from an interview with Sir Alfred Hitchcock (not a noted fan of the Baggy scene), describing how happiness to him is the pursuit of artistic endeavour in an atmosphere unsullied by personal tensions. One is left to figure out exactly why this has been included, but given the occasionally acrimonious dynamic between the various band members it’s not hard to come up with a working assumption. Anyway, almost at once Hitchcock departs, and the soundtrack vibrates to the primordial opening riff of I Wanna Be Adored, and you suddenly realise that if Meadows just wants to play classic Roses songs over a montage of library footage, that’s a pretty good basis for a movie in and of itself.

Made of Stone isn’t quite that – but, given that the band had only recently reformed and everyone involved was keen to keep the working environment as positive and stress-free as possible, one thing it is very short on is actual contemporary interviews with the four members (archive footage of Ian Brown and John Squire in prime journalist-baffling form does make an appearance). Instead there’s some casual fly-on-the-wall stuff behind the scenes at rehearsals, concerts, and on tour – and even here Meadows appears to have been under orders not to crowd Squire and Reni, as the camera keeps its distance from them virtually throughout.

Even so, the majority of the film is composed of archive material recounting the rise and fall of the Roses between 1984 and 1996, structured so it sort-of parallels the trajectory of the reformation and subsequent tour (which experienced its own not-insignificant wobble at one point), and footage of the band performing. Everything builds up to the stadium shows the band mounted in Manchester in the summer of 2012, playing to a crowd of 75,000 people in their home town.

I suppose how much you enjoy this film will depend to some degree on your fondness for Baggy music, because you will end up spending most of the 100-minute running time listening to it. I Wanna Be Adored and (the song) Made of Stone both get played in full twice – not that this is a terrible ordeal, to my ears – while an extended, noodle-tastic version of Fool’s Gold is held back for the climax of the film (there’s very little I Am The Resurrection and hardly any One Love, which was a bit of a personal disappointment).

And yet I think this film does have something to offer anyone who isn’t a fan of this kind of music. The sequences of the band’s early rehearsals, as they learn to play together again after a sixteen year lay-off, are remarkable in the way that they capture the alchemy of the four men slowly remembering how this works. One gets a fantastic sense of the working dynamic that exists between the members of a band while they’re actually performing from these scenes, and that’s something universal across all kinds of music, I suspect.

But as well as the music, the film is also about the passionate devotion inspired by this most-mythologised of recent rock groups. The most memorable section of the film concerns the build-up to the band’s first concert following their reformation, playing to a thousand fans at virtually no notice. Within minutes of the gig being announced on the radio, sweating devotees start arriving at the venue, having run all the way there from their workplaces and homes. The dedication of these people is clear: they genuinely love the Stone Roses, and for them this will be one of the most memorable evenings of their lives. One man confesses to inventing a serious family emergency in order to get out of work and attend. Another – a deputy head teacher, no less – owns up to offering his car keys in exchange for a ticket to the concert (he did not find any takers). The Stone Roses were never short on self-belief but the concert, when it begins, has something of the quality of an ecstatic religious revival. Just watching the footage of the performance is intense; I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be there.

Exhibit A for the Roses’ ability to inspire enormous affection is Meadows himself, who admits they are his all-time favourite band, and that making this film is a dream come true for him. Most of the time, Meadows’ affection for the group works in the film’s favour, as he is able to imbue every frame of concert and rehearsal footage with joy and excitement. The only downside comes when there is a dramatic mid-tour wobble with one of the band storming off stage mid-performance and the crowd turning ugly: I can imagine a more objective director attempting to mine this incident for all the drama and insight it obviously offers, but Meadows’ instinctive response – no doubt fully endorsed by the band’s management – is to fly back to England and leave them to sort it all out in privacy.

Then again, this is a celebration of the Stone Roses and their fans, not a forensic examination of the workings of the band or their music. As such, I can’t imagine anyone with more than a passing fondness for the group finding Made of Stone anything but enjoyable, and even those so far indifferent to their music may well find their opinions being changed – or at least things to enjoy.

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I had another go at my occasional hobby of organising DIY double-bills for myself today. On one level the two films concerned have virtually nothing in common, but then again I could happily describe the day’s festivities under the banner ‘Sugar/Candy’ without the slightest dishonesty. And they are both exceptionally rewarding films to watch, which is surely the most important thing.

They say that the mark of a great documentary is that it takes a subject you previously knew nothing about, and which honestly doesn’t sound that prepossessing, and makes it riveting in its own right. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is something quite different and almost wholly surprising.

The film opens with a blank screen over which a song begins to play, quickly joined by the picture of a coastal highway. The song is called ‘Sugar Man’, and I had never heard it before – and despite my musical nous only extending to the uke, it was immediately obvious that the singer knew his business. Talking about the song in the movie is Steve ‘Sugar’ Segerman, who got his nickname from the song. Sugar describes how he first came across the singer of the song, Rodriguez, the impact his music had, and the sadness he felt upon hearing of the bizarre, horrible nature of Rodriguez’s death: immolating himself on stage.

By this point most people will be wondering ‘Who the hell was this Rodriguez character?’ – I certainly was. The film obligingly fills us in: Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter based in Detroit in the late 60s, turning out highly accomplished pop-folk protest songs. A buzz collected around him and he recorded an album, Cold Fact, with some distinguished producers. It did not achieve the expected success, and so moved on to produce a second record, Coming from Reality. But this did not sell either, and as a result Rodriguez was dropped by the label and vanished back into the silence of obscurity.

A common enough story, as many failed musicians whose names you wouldn’t recognise could confirm. But the film is only just getting started. A copy of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa in the early Seventies, where it rapidly developed a devoted following amongst liberal white Afrikaaners responding to its anti-establishment tone. Perhaps the isolated nature of South Africa at this point in history is responsible, but – for whatever reason – an album which barely registered in the American or European charts became a massive hit in this part of the world. Rodriguez was as popular as the Beatles, and more popular than Elvis or the Rolling Stones, and is credited by South African musicians as having a huge influence on the cultural resistance to the apartheid regime.

And yet, also due to the nature of the world at this time, Rodriguez’s legions of fans knew virtually nothing about him beyond his name and a few clues scattered through the records. Various grim rumours went into circulation about the exact details of his death, but no-one was able to find out for certain. It was against this background that two fans, Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, set out to finally discover what had happened to their hero…

At this point I must stop, though it pains me to do so. Searching for Sugar Man has been structured in accordance with the presumption that this story will come as a total surprise to you, and as a result it will lose much of its impact if I go shooting my mouth off and spoiling the ending. For this reason I would recommend not doing anything like Googling Rodriguez or YouTubing his songs before seeing the film, should you be planning to. (I have to say that the trailer for this film spoils the ending quite spectacularly, so avoid that as well!) Suffice to say that the story related by the rest of the film is utterly astonishing, enormously emotional, and completely engrossing. This is one of the best and most remarkable films I’ve seen this year, and that’s really all you need to know.

Oh, well, if you insist… at the top I said that a good documentary turns an unlikely subject into a great story – but in this case the story itself is so incredible that it would take a complete oaf to muck up a film about it. Malik Bendjelloul is not that oaf and he does the tale full justice. This isn’t just a great documentary but a great movie, with a definite eye for appropriate cinematic flourishes and a real sense of an unfolding narrative.

However, one could easily argue that Bendjelloul has got a little carried away on this score, and the way the film is put together is actually a bit disingenuous, actively misleading the audience and withholding pertinent facts about Rodriguez – all in order to achieve its moments of shock and emotion later on. An interview with the rather chippy former owner of Rodriguez’s record label is particularly guilty of this, but this is sort of forgiveable given it’s one of the most telling sequences in the film: the man practically weeps recalling the fate of an artist he seems to have genuine affection for, then abruptly clams up and becomes aggressive when the issue of what happened to Rodriguez’s massive South African royalties is raised.

I suppose it boils down to whether you want to see a great piece of journalism or a great movie; Bendjelloul has opted for the later and achieved his goal with some style. If this movie did mislead me, it did so with such confidence and style that I’m more than willing to forgive it. Whether the director would be able to make an equally engrossing film about less-amazing subject matter – because there can’t be too many stories like this one floating around in obscurity – I don’t know. But Searching for Sugar Man is a brilliant achievement and a terrific film.

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It’s that time of year when really big event movies are beginning to make their presence felt, with salvos of naval cannon-shells desperately competing with hurtling mystic hammers and even more arcane weaponry. You would think that now, more than ever, smaller and less obviously commercial movies would be forced out of theatres, but this is proving not to be the case – distributors are not stupid, and understand that there still exists a class of moviegoer who isn’t necessarily interested in references to obscure comic-book characters or genre movies of any kind. And so they quietly release films to which your more Bohemian or highbrow punter will flock, safe in the knowledge there will be no appearances from beauty-queens-turned-popstrels or nonagenerian self-promoting comics editors.

Currently using this strategy is Marley, an off-the-wall prequel to The Muppet Christmas Carol… no, of course it isn’t. It helps if this sort of film has a ‘name’ director attached to it, and in the case of Marley the film-maker responsible is Kevin Macdonald. Macdonald is someone whose career has skipped cheerfully back and forth between drama and documentary, including the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, and the not-quite-so-brilliant The Eagle. Marley finds him firmly in documentarian mode as he turns his attention to Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley.

The film opens with a striking sequence which, to be honest, it never explicitly follows up on, visiting one of the former slaver fortresses off the African coast, from where thousands of Africans were dispatched to the Caribbean. From here it relocates to Jamaica itself and the remote rustic township where Marley himself was born and grew up. What follows is on one level a somewhat familiar story of rags-to-riches, hard work and talent leading to immense popular success (with some fallings-out along the way), and concluding with tragedy and premature death.

But on another level this is the story of a man who was in many ways more than just an entertainer. The film doesn’t shy away from Marley’s status either as an adherent and (arguably) great populariser of Rastafarianism (although the exact details of his ganja intake are not really explored), or his political importance within Jamaica itself. There is potential here for an absolutely fascinating story and the film takes full advantage of it.

This is not to say that this is a dry or heavy piece of work, of course. The fact that most of the interviewees are Jamaican, often speaking heavy patois, fills it with life and colour, and there are some cracking anecdotes along the way. A founder member of the Wailers recalls their manager insisting the band rehearse in a cemetery in the middle of the night, on the grounds this would eliminate any danger of stagefright later in their career. Later on, when discussing an attempt on Marley’s life, Macdonald asks his manager if the hit was professionally organised. ‘It was about as professional as anything gets in Jamaica,’ comes the reply.

Marley himself emerges as a captivating figure, albeit a mass of contradictions as well. His passion and vitality fill the movie, even though there’s relatively little footage of him speaking in it. The sheer poverty in which he grew up is really driven home when a caption labels the earliest known photograph of Marley – and he is already well into his teens. How strange it is that this man, one of the greatest icons ever to emerge from the developing world, and a spokesman for an Afro-centric religion, should in truth be the son of a British imperial functionary with a distinctly murky background. How much of Marley’s later life was influenced by his barely-existing relationship with his white father the film leaves the viewer to decide, but it is clear growing up as an outcast was hugely significant.

Very commendably, the Marley family – who were closely involved with the production – have resisted the temptation to censor the story, and the film is honest about some of the less laudable aspects of Marley’s life. He was, it seems, ruthless in pursuit of commercial success, even when that appeared to clash with his spiritual beliefs. His children still seem to be struggling to come to terms with losing him at such a young age, given he appears to have been a rather distant father. Above all, his widow emerges as a figure of almost supernatural forbearance, given his numerous infidelities (including having children by seven different women).

It’s often said that the mark of a really great documentary is that it takes a subject with which you’re not that familiar and makes it come alive for you. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest reggae fan, although I do have a vague but genuine love of the work of Jimmy Cliff (and Cliff appears in the movie, which was a welcome surprise) – but this film is rich enough in texture and wide enough in scope to engross from beginning to end. And, needless to say, the soundtrack is stunning from beginning to end – before it, I would have said I knew only two or three Wailers numbers, but tune after familiar tune keeps coming throughout the movie. If the film fails to really address the central issue – what exactly was it that transformed Bob Marley into such a huge star, still the face and voice of reggae three decades after his death? – then I suspect that’s because no-one truly knows the answer. That he is still a massive presence is confirmed by the closing credits, where people from all corners of the world cheerfully share their versions of classic Marley numbers. A fascinating and very human story, well told by Macdonald.

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Kids these days don’t know how lucky they are. Even ten years ago my daily walk home after a hard day’s squabbling with a Welshman and a dipstick was fraught with tension, simply because it seemed like every bloody shop was blasting Walking in the Air, Last Christmas, or (worst of all) Merry Christmas Everyone out through doors in the apparent belief it would entice shoppers in or create a positive mood. Hmmm. Nowadays much has changed regarding Christmas music, of course. Having been preoccupied with other stuff for the past three or four festive seasons I had not in fact noticed that the single perpetrated  released by the X Factor winner has topped the charts every year since 2005.

Now, the British people will clearly only take so much! Forget all the various ongoing horrors and atrocities of the modern world, or the serious and ongoing problems resulting from our economic and social system’s inability to incorporate any kind of meaningful ethical or environmental agenda, or even the thorny issue of the Strictly Come Dancing voting system. If there’s one thing that will get the masses agitated and organised then it’s manufactured pop hogging the Xmas number one slot.

I’m not sure whether to feel more depressed about the immense popularity of X Factor – I can only assume 19.1 million people don’t actually mind being openly manipulated – or the crack-brainedness of the popular reaction against it. Members of this tendency state their problems pretty much thus: ‘We’re sick of being told what to buy and so we will demonstrate our non-conformism by doing something different. Yes, the same thing. Yes, all of us. Yes, it’s somebody else’s idea.‘ 

Are they aware that a lot of people might be buying the X-single because, hmm, they quite like it? You can say what you like about Simon Cowell but he knows how to put together a mainstream pop single. I suppose you can make the case that the 17-week saturation bombardment of Saturday night TV by Cowell and co. could be construed as giving Android McWinner the kind of publicity money simply can’t buy, but even so – what exactly are these people hoping to achieve? A return to the good old days when the Xmas no. 1 slot was usually taken by classic, credible artists like East 17 (Stay Another Day, 1994), the Spice Girls (three years in a row, though I quite like their ’96 release), and, of course, Cliff Richard (1988-90, 1999)? Wow, don’t set your sights too high, guys.

Cowell himself seems to be on the money (just for a change) when he interpreted the ‘let’s get Rage Against The Machine to no.1’ campaign as a personal attack, and a rather stupid one as he’s not going to make any less money off Android McWinner as a result – and Sony are going to make even more as they published both the singles in question.

Simon Cowell doesn’t decide, mould, or otherwise shape popular taste – more than any other senior person in the media, anyway – all he does is judge what the majority of the public will like better than most people. To complain about his success is to basically get upset that other people have different tastes to you (I think there’s a degree of jealousy involved too).

A lot of money has already been raised for a worthwhile charity, but the only thing that stopping Android McWinner from having the Xmas no. 1 will really prove is the internet’s power to let people organise and work together to achieve something (really pointless) in a manner impossible back when Noddy Holder ruled the December airwaves. And, to be honest, I think the current campaign is fuelled by the same motive responsible for vandalism and other kinds of pointless disruption of people’s lives. The fact the anti-Cowell mob have chosen as their favoured song not something appropriately seasonal, but a fashionably subversive piece of almost unlistenable rap metal where someone gargles ‘fuck’ 17 times while a concrete mixer turns over in the background, is to me significant. Here we are dealing with a juvenile instinct for mischief-making coupled to a nearly irrational dislike for one man and his trousers. Should they achieve their aim, no doubt some of those responsible will feel very good about themselves, but as the late Bill Hicks said about something entirely different – ‘If you really need to feel better about yourself – can I suggest  sit-ups?’

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