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I have a certain grammatical inclination – I’d say it was an interest but it’s really more of a complex – and it struck me just the other day that there are lots of films with titles that are just made up of nouns, and quite a few with titles where the only thing you’ll find are verbs. Apart from the occasional quirky exception, though, these tend to be films with reasonably short titles. With a longer title, you’re really heading into the realm of the sentence, with all the associated baggage that comes with that – articles, conjunctions, maybe even punctuation. And prepositions, of course – if you want to do a movie with a long name, you’re probably looking at most of these things.

And so the first thing that struck me about Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, is just how unwieldy a title that is (I’ll be referring to it simply as Hallelujah from this point on, hope that’s okay). I mean, it kind of does the job of telling you what the movie is about, but does it trip off the tongue? I put it to you that it does not.

Still, being clumsily on-the-nose is a bit like underestimating the intelligence of the average viewer, it’s not a brilliant thing to do but it’s not going to cost you money, either – the last documentary about Leonard Cohen went for a much more oblique title, to the point where it wasn’t immediately clear who and what it was about. It’s a hard life in the documentary business sometimes, especially as people seem to be running out of things to make films about – this is the second Cohen documentary in three years, while 2022 has also seen two films about the same pair of married French vulcanologists. (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary from a few years back kind of addressed this issue, also obliquely. (I think we’re going to be using the word ‘oblique’ a lot today.))

So this Leonard Cohen guy must be pretty famous if everyone keeps making documentaries about him! Constant reader, I take nothing for granted – I’m sure you’re extremely well versed (and indeed chorused) in everything from Death of a Ladies Man to You Want It Darker, but there may be people happening by here who aren’t, so: Leonard Cohen, scion of a wealthy Canadian family, first rose to fame in the sixties as a novelist, poet, and eventually singer, and probably one of the most unlikely people ever to become a massive influence on pop music.

This film’s way of carving out a niche in the somewhat crowded Leonard Cohenomentary market (there have been many, some dating back to the mid sixties – also an appearance in Miami Vice as a French crime lord, which I bet you didn’t know about, but on the other hand Bruce Forsyth was once in an episode of Magnum and no-one ever mentions that, either) is to present itself more as a kind of biography of one of Cohen’s songs, for which a certain amount of biographical detail on the singer himself is required. Which song? Well, as you will know if you’ve been paying attention, it’s Hallelujah, the inescapable blues-gospel-spiritual-rock song which has become as much of a standard as any other of the last forty years.

To be honest, Cohen is such an interesting figure – erudite, thoughtful, charismatic, witty – that this particular bit of framing probably wasn’t necessary, and the story of the first twenty years or so of his music career (pre-Hallelujah) is engaging in its own right, touching on classic themes of struggles against adversity and to retain artistic integrity. Is there a sense in which you are waiting for the moment where Cohen sits down and thinks, ‘You know what, it’d be a good idea to write a song about…’? Well, maybe, but only very mildly.

You will have noted that I just skipped over the whole question of what Hallelujah is actually about: so does the film, and key contributor John Lissauer (who arranged the original version of the song) reveals he never asked Cohen this question either. You’d expect it to be about something, given it took Cohen seven years to write it, producing somewhere in the region of 160 verses in the process – but perhaps the obliqueness of the song, the ambiguity of it and the contradiction it embodies (it’s a very downbeat song to be named after what’s traditionally a cry of joy) are partly why it has acquired such a status in modern culture – you can project anything onto the song, interpret it however you like, deploy it in any situation, and it will always somehow feel appropriate.

Once Cohen has finally written and recorded the song, the singer himself yields the focus of the film to his creation for a while, as it considers its long, inexorable rise, mainly due to it being covered by other people – Bob Dylan, John Cale, and especially Jeff Buckley (who may owe his particular influence – many people still think it’s a Jeff Buckley song – to the fact his was the first version in general circulation by someone who could sing in the conventional sense of the word). Then came the unlikely springboard presented by the song’s presence on the soundtrack of the first Shrek movie, endless versions done by TV talent show hopefuls, and so on.

This, as you have probably guessed, is not a movie for anyone who doesn’t like Hallelujah. Even if you’re only mildly ambivalent about it, this may not be the movie for you, as watching it will involve listening to about forty different performances of just this one song (not all in full, but even so). There are obviously many different Cohen renditions, of the original Old Testament version, the later ‘secular’ version, and finally a kind of ‘fusion’ version, but also covers by John Cale, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, people off The X Factor, someone singing it to her husband at their wedding (yes, this is a bit of an ‘eep’ moment), and so on.

(One striking omission (from the film as released, anyway) is the version done by Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, on the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election. Close scrutiny of the credits reveals that both McKinnon and the SNL writers are thanked for their participation, so I guess they either ended up on the cutting room floor, or – hopefully – as a DVD extra.)

The structure of the film is helped by the fact that Cohen himself essentially dropped out of sight for six years in the 1990s, just as the song was becoming known, spending the time in a Zen monastery in California (I’m tempted to add ‘as you do’). The image of him finally returning to society, suitcase in hand, only to discover one of his songs has become so ubiquitous in his absence, is an almost irresistible one, but not much dwelt on by the movie – the directors seem more interested in the fact that Cohen was forced to go back out on tour after his business manager ran away with all his money (I think this may be the kind of thing that happens if you spend six years in a Zen monastery, to be honest). Still, the film ends with the singer at peace, or at least as close to it as someone like Leonard Cohen ever gets, and presumably living very well off the royalties of a song which is so widely beloved.

Do you have to be particularly interested in Leonard Cohen or this song to enjoy the documentary? I don’t think so – though that would certainly not hurt. It’s a curious tale of slow-burning triumph, both for the song and its creator – there aren’t really any formal innovations or oddities here, just a straightforward telling of the story. But it’s a good enough story and much more than a good enough song to be a very engaging and satisfying watch.

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About ten years ago, I found myself unexpectedly required to accompany a fairly large contigent of teenagers from, shall we say, a Mediterranean nation, on an excursion around some of the more popular tourist sites in and near Salisbury. I was required to occasionally put a sort of pedagogical gloss on proceedings for contractual reasons. And so I found myself in the car park of a major neolithic monument, preparing to extemporise an educational lecture on what all the ragazzi – oops – were about to see. What to say? Well, it was obvious.

‘In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains – hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.’

It went down rather well, actually, although this – and the fact no-one complained about me more than normal – is probably due to the fact that cult American comedy films of the 1980s have made little penetration into the cultural landscape of southern-European schoolteachers. For myself, I can only put my ability to recite at length from Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap – for this is what we’re talking about – down to the fact that it has lodged itself deeply in pop culture, that I have a brain condition, and that it is simply so damn quotable.

‘You can’t really dust for vomit.’ ‘These go up to eleven.’ ‘There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ ‘I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.’ And it goes on and on.

Despite all that, I’d barely heard of Reiner’s film before its British TV premiere on New Year’s Eve 1991, but it seems to have become something of a fixture since then: it was only a few months later that the Tap somehow landed a slot at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley. ‘We would like to cut our set short tonight by about thirty-five songs… Freddie would have wanted it this way.’

For anyone still wondering, This is Spinal Tap purports to be a documentary film recording a not-untroubled American tour by the veteran British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. In addition to extensive footage of the band in concert, performing such immortal hits as ‘Big Bottom,’ ‘Sex Farm’, and ‘Hell Hole’, we are granted real insights into the relationships and creative process of band members such as David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). As the new album fails to sell and the record label (‘Polymer Records’, which of course is entirely different to Polydor Records, who actually distributed the film’s soundtrack) appears to lose confidence in the band, creative tensions within the group build up to a climax. Is a split on the cards, or can they keep things in perspective? (Probably too much perspective.)

Response to the film from people actually within the music industry seems to have fallen into two camps – some metal musicians not quite understanding what’s funny about the film, given how closely it tallies with their own experiences (research in the early 90s suggested that if the Tap are based on any particular real-life band, it’s the Barnsley rockers Saxon) – and others suggesting that it is, in fact, an uncannily accurate depiction of life on the road, and indeed the only rockumentary worth watching.

Saying that the actual accuracy or otherwise of the film is immaterial, and that it’s the fact it’s so consistently funny whch is important, is to rather miss the point – the film is so funny largely because it is so plausible and detailed. So much information is provided about the history of the band – their origins as a London skiffle group in the mid 1960s, a brief flirtation with psychedelia at the end of that decade, their changing line-up down the years (in terms just of keyboardists, we hear of Jan van der Kvelk, Dicky Laine, and Ross MacLochness, even though they don’t really appear in the film, while the group’s lengthy roll-call of deceased drummers has acquired an almost shorthand or folkloric quality) – that it’s not surprising that Spinal Tap seems to have taken on a life of its own. Despite starting off as a spoof, the Tap have released their own albums and played live shows. The band were so close to reality to begin with that it’s not surprising the line between fact and fiction ended up blurred.

The conceit is helped by the fact that the film doesn’t really feature any famous faces – when I saw it, probably the most familiar performer to me was Patrick Macnee, who briefly appears as the head of Polymer Records) – and while McKean in particular has gone on to have a fairly prominent career as an actor (a recurring role in The X Files, as well as being a regular on Better Call Saul), the lead actors are still weirdly not-recognisable in character even today.

Many of the jokes are indeed silly, and even bordering on the stupid: there’s something almost Pythonesque about the film’s willingness to mix the clever and the dumb. But somehow it never quite kicks you out of the story – the performances are that well-pitched. We should also bear in mind that, while the script is credited to Reiner and the three main band members, the whole thing was in fact improvised, and edited together out of dozens of hours of footage.

What puts the final gloss on the film is the way that a storyline ultimately emerges that is genuinely quite moving, in its own way – David and Nigel fall out as the film progresses, with Nigel temporarily leaving the band. Their eventual rapproachement – the realisation that, despite everything, playing music together is what they want to do – is a really touching moment, and ends the film on an emotional as well as comedic high. It’s things like this that make This is Spinal Tap a great film as well as a great comedy.

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Making an unexpectedly early appearance this year is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a bold attempt to explore some of the more obscure crevices of American popular culture (I jest). Why unexpectedly early? Well, the subject matter (one of the great American icons), the presence of a usually-reliable awards-bait performer like Tom Hanks, and the whopping running-time (the far side of two and a half hours) might reasonably lead one to conclude this is a film destined for a run at the Oscars. But prestige awards-bait movies usually appear no earlier than the Autumn; positioning Elvis as a summer blockbuster is a slightly odd choice.

Not that it isn’t a good time to be releasing a movie about Elvis, an undeniably colossal figure in the history of music, but one who tends to get forgotten about by most people for long stretches of time. As far as the UK goes, I remember there being a bit of a fuss about the tenth anniversary of his passing, a spate of sightings of the King in off-licences and supermarkets a couple of years later, more attention on the twentieth anniversary, and then an unexpected spike in interest when a TV commercial directed by Terry Gilliam powered a remix of A Little Less Conversation to the number one spot a couple of years later.

This is not to say we are not still living in a musical landscape influenced and to some extent defined by Presley’s work, but Elvis’ actual music too often gets absorbed into the greater mass of Elvis the cultural icon – the movies, the jumpsuits, hundreds of impersonators of rather varying quality. Perhaps one of the ideas behind the movie was to chip away at some of the impedimenta and acquaint people with something of Elvis Presley the man.

The central tension in the film comes from the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler getting his big break) and his long-time manager Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks). The popular consensus about this is that Parker was mainly interested in simply exploiting Elvis for his own financial gain, a grasping parasite who effectively sabotaged Presley’s career and contributed to his premature death. However, the movie opens with an elderly Parker – addressing the audience, in one of those extravagant conceits you tend to get in Baz Luhrmann films – declaring that he has been misrepresented and that he is about to set the story straight.

And so we learn of how Parker, a protean and shady character, a citizen of no country whose name and title are both assumed, chances upon a youthful Presley while looking for a new carnival attraction. Parker sees this ‘wiggling boy’, who blends the music of different cultures so strikingly and has such a profound effect on his audiences, as just the sort of thing he is looking for. Elvis indeed proves to be a sensational success, but this also courts controversy in the segregated and conservative USA of the late 1950s (Luhrmann successfully manages to align Elvis with the progressive politics of the period).

Outrage is averted when Elvis is persuaded to spend two years serving in the US army in Germany, returning as a more clean-cut, less outrageous performer whom Parker succeeds in inserting into a string of profitable but nondescript musicals. These are followed by an attempt to relaunch him – rather against his will – as a family entertainer, which transmogrifies into his famous 1968 comeback special. This, however, merely sets the stage for an extended series of residencies in Las Vegas, with the singer chafing to leave and extend himself but compelled to remain, in no small part due to the personal terms Parker has reached with the casino owners (the line ‘We’re caught in a trap’ echoes plaintively on the soundtrack). The seventies continue… and we all know how this story ends.

Longstanding watchers of Baz Luhrmann films will probably not be surprised to hear of the slight feeling of sensory overload I experienced during the opening sequence of the movie (it was exactly the same during Moulin Rouge, over twenty years ago), but – just as on that occasion – the film eventually settles down, becoming a somewhat more conventional musical bio-pic. (I say somewhat more conventional, as Parker continues to be an abrasive, unreliable narrator – the reason Elvis made all those lousy musicals, he insists, is simply because the audience didn’t want to see anything else.)

Luhrmann is clearly intent on presenting Elvis as a tragic hero, ill-used throughout his adult life, and a performer of real significance – which is presumably why the musicals are zipped through in a matter of moments, while the 1968 comeback special is dwelt on at considerable length. There are moments recalling lots of other films of this ilk, particularly once Elvis’ final, miserable decline sets in.

In many ways the most interesting section of the film comes much earlier, exploring just who Elvis was, what made him so special, and why audiences responded to him in the way they did. It’s hard to quantify a talent as magical as the one Presley had, but the film leans heavily into the idea of him as someone capable of provoking an extraordinary, almost dionysiacal response in a crowd. In one sequence Luhrmann shows the young Elvis running from a brothel where the blues are being played to a marquee hosting a religious revival with a gospel choir in residence: the two kinds of music blend together, with a hint of country, and suddenly the Elvis sound is there, accompanied by images of people in the midst of transcendental moments, both sacred and profane. It’s an almost irresistible and hugely impressive moment.

Austin Butler is really up against it having to play one of the most famous people in history, but acquits himself well in both the musical and the dramatic sequences. Whether Tom Hanks is authentically recreating a very outlandish figure or simply wildly over the top seems to be up for debate, but his performance is big, it’s also consistent, and gives the film a strong centre which it probably needs. I knew the broad strokes of Elvis’ life going into the movie, and found it to be an interesting, entertaining and occasionally moving story; I expect that people less familiar with the singer may emerge with more of a sense of why he was and remains such a huge figure. If the film never quite succeeds in explaining what made Elvis so special, that’s because some things are simply beyond solely rational explanation – but it does a great job of reminding the audience of just how special he was.

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No movie this year is likely to have a more impressive or gorgeous soundtrack than Guiseppe Tornatore’s Ennio. The title itself is a dead giveaway as to the reason why: this is a documentary about the life and career of Ennio Morricone, the – and here one must pause for a moment to express regret that the language has become so debased, and some words so overused – legendary musician and composer. (The Italian title of the movie is Ennio – The Master.) Morricone departed from this frame of existence in 2020, a fact the film does not acknowledge despite it being completed after this happened. But on the other hand it does suggest that Morricone’s music will always be with us, and so to what extent can we really say that he has gone?

There is a good deal of gushing about Morricone’s work before the film is over, but this is not just a puff piece or a hagiography – it’s a film which strives to take both itself and its subject seriously. Given the sumptuous treasures of Morricone’s back catalogue, the film opens with the somewhat bold choice of no music whatsoever, just a ticking metronome. This plays over film of the 90-odd Morricone going about his daily fitness regime with great seriousness. (Exercise the Ennio Way was never released as a workout DVD, but I don’t think this is a great loss to the sum total of human culture.)

Various contributors say nice things about Morricone and it soon becomes clear that this documentary is not going to be indulging in any great formal innovations or stylistic surprises. We learn about Morricone’s childhood in occupied Rome, and his relationship with his father, who insisted he learn to play the trumpet. This led to studies at a conservatoire by day, and jazz trumpeting by night, and so on. By the early 1960s he was in enormous demand as an arranger of material in the Italian pop industry, which eventually led to a commission to write a film score – and ultimately a series of collaborations with his old school friend Sergio Leone, resulting in a series of movies which would change the face of cinema forever.

I would happily have turned up to the cinema just to listen to a selection of Morricone’s greatest hits for two and a half hours – this film is not afraid to go into some detail – and so it was a little disappointing that few of his most celebrated compositions get played at length. But I suppose being able to listen to Ecstasy of Gold whenever you like is one of the things that justifies the existence of the internet, and the documentary is not just here to remind you of things you probably already know about.

I’ve seen at least one documentary on the topic of film composition in general which suggested that the distinctive thing about Morricone’s work is not that he was particularly interested in innovation, but had a mastery of melody unparallelled even amongst other famous film composers. Ennio rather implies that all of this is actually complete balderdash, as it takes pains to give proper credit to Morricone’s other career as a composer of what he called ‘absolute’ music, music for its own sake, much of it highly experimental and avant garde (pieces where tape recorders and typewriters are instruments, and so on). It’s suggested that Morricone was rather dismissive of melodic music, which is a huge surprise given this is the man who wrote (for example) Gabriel’s Oboe.

Then again, one of the themes that recurs again and again throughout the film is Morricone’s own ambivalence about devoting so much of his energy to film music – one contemporary, who chose to work solely as a classical composer and musician, recalls how Morricone referred to to him as a purist, but to himself as a traitor. There are several moments when directors recall offending Morricone by expecting him simply to repeat or debase himself and his craft, usually drawing a fiery response as a result.

However, the film also chronicles Morricone’s ascent from simple movie composer to internationally revered artist, and in the process it touches upon all the things you might expect – his work on the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, culminating in his titanic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and then eventually moving on to the extraordinary period in the 1980s where he provided scores for Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables in the space of a few years. The creation of the score for The Mission is covered in particular detail, a section which concludes with an especially irascible Morricone complaining that the eventual winner of the Oscar for Best Score (Morricone’s lack of success at the Academy Awards does seem like one of those bizarre historical anomalies) should not in fact have been eligible for the category.

Of course, Morricone worked almost until the end of his life, and – rather charmingly – eventually received a competitive Oscar nearly ten years after being given an honorary lifetime achievement award. It’s on this note that the film chooses to conclude, mentioning in passing the abiding popularity and influence of Morricone’s music.

As I say, it’s a serious piece of work, seeking to inform as much as entertain – there’s a lot of relatively technical music theory mentioned in passing. On the other hand, one thing which happens over and over again is Morricone (and others) attempting to talk about music, finding that the human voice fails them, and resorting to going dee-de-dah-de-tumpty-tump as an expression of what they’re trying to say, which is oddly endearing. Music does seem to spill out of Morricone throughout the film; one contributor suggests that his work constitutes prima facie evidence for the existence of God, the kind of assertion which might give one pause if it were said about almost anyone else.

Needless to say, the film is not short of people willing to come on and sing the Maestro’s praises, including film directors and musicians of all stripes. One almost gets the sense that Tornatore was simply collecting big-name contributors, some of whom just come on for a few seconds. It would certainly have been interesting to hear more from John Williams (surely the only person to seriously challenge Morricone for the title of most celebrated movie composer of all time) and Hans Zimmer (one of the dominant figures in the genre these days), but the film chooses quantity over depth.

At over two and a half hours, this is a substantial piece of work, and the sheer seriousness and comprehensiveness of it may also make it challenging for some viewers (as noted, it’s not just the well-known tunes, but more obscure phases of Morricone’s career and some of his avant garde work). But it comes back again and again to the fact that Ennio Morricone spent decades making some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century. Much of it is there in the documentary, which makes it a wonderful reminder as well as an impressive guide to the great man’s career. Worth watching for anyone interested in music, or cinema as an art form.

 

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It seems like that one of the perks that comes with your Successful Film Director badge is the opportunity to occasionally make a documentary about anything you like, more often than not a niche personal interest of some sort: James Cameron has done a couple about deep-sea exploration, Peter Jackson seems to have an interest in military history (particularly aviation), Shane Meadows did one about his favourite band, and so on. You can see why these sorts of projects get the green light: documentary features are usually a tricky sell and putting the name of someone popular on them helps to offset that.

Edgar Wright is the latest to have a go and the subject of his film is effectively given away by the title, The Sparks Brothers – the fact that this is a title which the siblings in question supposedly loathe gives you a reasonably good sense as to the general tenor of the piece, which is playfully deadpan and carefully absurd.

These may sound like odd choices for a documentary, but then this is a documentary about the rock band/pop group/synth duo/trio Sparks, or more specifically the Mael brothers, who have been the core of the enterprise for half a century now. Movies celebrating groups or bands or individual artists like this one usually start with a section where a selection of celebrity admirers come on and try to explain just how wonderful, accomplished, pleasing to the eye and generally deserving the subjects are. It perhaps says something about the essential nature of Sparks that even their most passionate devotees, given this opportunity for fulsome praise, still end up describing the duo as ‘an anomaly’, and offering thoughts such as ‘they would make good Muppets’ and that they look less like a band than people on day release from some kind of institution.

This seems rather unfair to younger brother Russell, who is the vocalist and front man for the band, and seems an engaging and personable chap, but may well be a fair description of elder Mael Ron, whose angular, threatening, slightly predatory stage presence – coupled to a dress sense which is interesting, to say the least – is one of the things the band is most famous for. There’s a famous, probably apocryphal story about John Lennon seeing Sparks’ first Top of the Pops appearance and phoning up Ringo Starr to tell him he’d just seen Marc Bolan performing a song with Hitler.

That song was This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, the 1974 single which is probably the only thing a lot of people can remember about Sparks. This was certainly the case for me: I was only vaguely aware of them beyond this one record, and was entirely in the dark about the twenty-plus albums and hundreds of songs they’ve recorded in a half-century career.

Happily, Wright and his film are here to provide some illumination into the Sparks opus, and do so at potentially exhausting length: there’s some background on the siblings (they are native Californians, hence the line that Sparks is ‘the best British band ever to come out of America’), including – courtesy of what must have been some ferocious research – footage of them as teenagers in the audience of a Beatles gig. Then the film covers the coming together of their first band Halfnelson, later renamed Sparks in a slightly perplexing marketing exercise.

From then on, every album is discussed, along with the brothers’ various peregrinations, reinventions, changes of style, and other projects. It is such an odd story – at one point they were going to make a film with Jacques Tati, at another they spent literally years working on an adaptation of a Japanese manga to be directed by a young Tim Burton – and essentially that of two men driven to follow their muse rather than any kind of commercial instinct. Former Sparks drummer (and, apparently, long-time TNG extra) Christi Haydon is reduced to tears as she recalls the brothers’ longest period in the commercial wilderness (in the late 80s and early 90s) and the fact that they continued to write and produce music on a virtually daily basis throughout this period.

One question the film doesn’t directly address is that of how a band can be so prolific and massively influential and yet remain so little known. (Wright makes the reasonable suggestion that every synth-pop duo with a flamboyant singer and a rather less demonstrative keyboard player are basically ripping off Sparks’ act, albeit usually with less wit.) The closest it comes is the suggestion that the whole essence of Sparks is an exercise in irony and the deconstruction of cliché – it’s usually impossible to tell whether the brothers are taking something deadly seriously or quietly sending it up; they may in fact be doing both at the same time. Their single Music You Can Dance To is an arch parody of vacuous commercial dance-pop, but at the same time it’s a banging example of the form at its best. Other songs reveal the same dry sense of humour or a willingness to completely tear up the usual norms of pop music – the lyrics to My Baby’s Taking Me Home are basically just the title, repeated seventy or eighty times in a row.

Wright manages to suffuse the movie with the same kind of deadpan artiness, including animated sequences and a droll section where Ron and Russell enact various metaphors – the suggestion that Sparks push the envelope of conventional pop music is accompanied by a clip of them pushing an envelope back and forth, and so on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are exceptionally good value as interviewees, in a film which is not short on people willing to come on camera and sing their praises – various musicians, actors, writers and fans all turn up.

The Sparks legend is largely based on the duo retaining an aura of mystique, which the film duly respects – we learn virtually nothing about their private or personal lives, beyond the fact that Russell once had a brief entanglement with Jane Wiedlin and that Ron has a large collection of snow-globes. Even so, the brothers appear at one point and admit their concerns on this front, attempting to remystify themselves by sharing some rather dubious Sparks facts – Russell is apparently a NASCAR driver in his spare time, while Ron writes spy thrillers under the pseudonym John le Carre (a joke which seems a bit tasteless now but wasn’t at the time of filming).

Two hours and twenty minutes is a long duration for this kind of film, but it trips along very enjoyably: as ever, you almost wish they stopped to play some of the songs in full. (Still, I suppose we have the internet for this sort of thing now.) It really succeeds as a funny, engaging and warm film, and also as a documentary. I went to see it on the strength of the trailer and Edgar Wright’s track record, really knowing very little about the band, and I came out actually loving them a bit. Consider me a convert.

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Who knows where anything starts anymore? Back in the old days, I went round to a friend’s house to discuss a plan to get a freaky art thing underway, which turned into the pair of us scribbling away independently. Being a good host, my friend invited me to choose some music to put on. Paralysed as usual by the prospect of making a revealing choice in a social context, I opted for the last CD I had bought, a live album recorded at a reunion concert. My friend nodded and smiled. ‘Play X-Ray Spex,’ he commanded his virtual assistant. We sat in thoughtful silence for a minute or so while Oh Bondage! Up Yours! racketed out of his speakers. ‘Stop playing X-Ray Spex,’ were the next words in the room…

Fifteen or sixteen years earlier I had been in the early stages of one of my infrequent but inevitably ill-advised excursions into online dating (or ‘the donkey ride to hell’ as I have come to refer to it) and we were at the getting-to-know-you stage in proceedings. Things were going reasonably well until I admitted to having been spending a lot of time listening to Germfree Adolescents, the 1978 debut album by (a pattern develops) X-Ray Spex. I would say it’s usually difficult to communicate unconstrained hilarity via an email, but my correspondent had no difficulty doing so. ‘I can’t believe anyone still listens to X-Ray Spex,’ came the response. Suffice to say things did not proceed very far…

…I suppose the root cause of all this, really, was the experience of having to study very intensively for my university finals back in the mid-1990s, not least because I’d spent the bulk of the preceding three years messing about in the film and media studies section of the library rather than doing much work on my own subject. This involved repeatedly listening to The Best Punk Rock Album in the World… Ever!, with the benefit of hindsight a slightly embarrassing and certainly inauthentic artefact which redeemed itself by being stuffed with banging tunes from bands I’d barely been aware of. As well as an almost Pavlovian conditioned response to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer (the track I would unfailingly listen to immediately before an exam), it also left me with an abiding fondness for the band with the saxophones and the shouting.

Nevertheless, as you can see, most peoples’ reaction to X-Ray Spex is that they are weird and/or a novelty band (‘novelty’ in this case having the same pejorative connotation as in ‘novelty record’). So it goes, I expect. Or maybe not, for if the cinemas were open at the moment, I expect that one or two of them would be showing Paul Sng and Celeste Bell’s documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, about the life of the prime mover behind the band.

The title is ironic, or at the very least tongue-in-cheek, for there is very little about the life of Poly Styrene (real name Marianne Elliott-Said) that was entirely conventional: born in the late 1950s, of mixed English and Somali heritage, she always seems to have been one of life’s questing spirits. Perhaps the most predictable part of her story is her attendance at a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, which inspired her to have a go herself, hiring a band and changing her name. (There are variations on this story featuring New Order, Morrissey and many other musicians and bands.)

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the trajectory that followed was broadly speaking quite predictable: success, media interest, too much too young, personal and psychological problems, an unfavourably reviewed solo album, and then retreat from the music industry into a Hare Krishna community, from which she intermittently emerged until her untimely death in 2012.

There is, obviously, a great deal of potential material here, all mixed up with the social and cultural history of the UK. At first listen most of the songs on Germfree Adolescents sound the same – snarling guitars, frantic saxophones and Poly Styrene yowling over the top of it all – but the lyrics deal with topics of personal identity, feminism, the environment, and much more. One of the paradoxical things about the film is that while it reinforces Poly Styrene’s status as a punk icon, it also suggests the punk rock movement was a really a collection of disparate individuals, misfits who only really had in common the fact that they didn’t fit in anywhere else.

The general tone of the film arises from the fact that it is directed by and prominently features Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene’s daughter. Bell narrates the film, appearing on-screen throughout, and the piece is framed as her looking back on her mother’s life and significance. This gives it an undeniable resonance and impact, even if it does threaten to turn the film into a meditation on the extent to which it is possible to really know another person – for all the archive footage and material the documentary includes (Ruth Negga narrates some of Poly Styrene’s diaries), you inevitable come away realising you’re just getting tiny glimpses into what was really an extraordinary life.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the measured thoughtfulness of Who is Poly Styrene?, a contemporary documentary made at the height of her success and popularity – the best moment of which comes when a journalist asks the singer how she sees her music developing in the future. ‘Who knows, maybe it’ll turn into the sound of a hoover,’ comes the chirpy reply. Nor is it really surprising that the film skates very lightly over some aspects of Poly Styrene’s life that might give a less positive image of her: there is a reference to her ‘cruelly sacking’ Lora Logic, the saxophonist responsible for much of the classic X-Ray Spex sound, but no elucidation of just what occurred (in one of the great karmic ironies, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic both ended up living in the same Hare Krishna community in later life).

Then again, this is standard operating procedure for most musical bio-documentaries, which are after all largely pitching to fans of their subject, who may be turned off by a warts-and-all approach. For the most part this is still a colourful and satisfying look at someone who is perhaps too little remembered these days. It doesn’t have the depth or detachment that makes for a really great documentary, but it’s still a thought-provoking and illuminating film.

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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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