Film: Joy Division (Grant Gee 2008)

In some ways, the Joy Division story is an odd one for a major documentary film. It’s not that the story isn’t interesting – far from it – just that it is perhaps overly familiar. Anton Corbijn’s brilliant Control was only released six months ago, and there was a BBC documentary about Factory shown around the same time. Coupled with this, the amount of archive footage is small – much of it (like the Granada studios and BBC Oxford Road sessions) has been seen many times before. The film’s major coup was getting Annik Honoré to speak for the first time, but she didn’t really have much of interest to say. Against this, there was a Deborah Curtis shaped hole in the centre of film, papered over with quotes from her book.

So reservations aplenty, but director Grant Gee has managed to fashion a remarkably good film out of the limited resources available. After Corbijn’s grainy monochrome, it’s quite a shock to see everything in glorious colour. Grubby as it was, seventies Manchester doesn’t look quite so shockingly grim and war-torn when shown in colour. Sunshine and blue skies weren’t eighties inventions. The film’s structure is chronological, eschewing too much fancy contextualizing with a more or less straight telling of the story. Both Barney and Hooky are as unguarded and revealing as I’ve heard them. Ian Curtis comes across in a better light than he did in Control. In Corbijn’s film it was easy to forget just how young he was. Here it’s more apparent, and the sense of regret that the surviving band members have that they didn’t handle his illness better, or read the warning signs more clearly is palpable. They were also young, and simply not experienced enough to deal with it. In retrospect, all three feel that their singer was wracked with guilt about letting them down through his illness, and this made him hide it is much as he could from them. Which, of course, just made things worse.

Gee weaves the interviews with archive footage very well. He uses the limited amount of material available to its best advantage, including some live footage shot by fans. Grainy and tinny, but worth seeing. There is a hilarious bit mid film where John Peel wrestles with the concept of a 33rpm seven inch single. The film’s screenwriter Jon Savage and the late Tony Wilson try to make a case that the band were largely responsible for Manchester’s rebirth as a modern city which is perhaps overstating their impact. But that thesis isn’t overplayed, thankfully. In the end, what leaves the greatest impression is the music. As one interviewee says in the film (Richard Boon? I forget who), it still sounds strikingly modern. It certainly doesn’t sound like it was made almost thirty years ago.

The audience at the showing I was at sat reverentially right through to the end of the credits, which is unusual. And then they filed out in contemplative silence. That in itself is as good a recommendation as any.

DVD: PAN SONIC – Kuvaputki / Cathode Ray Tube / Set (Blast First Petite PTYT009DVD 2008)

Kuvaputki / Cathode Ray Tube / Set (to give it its full title) is a live DVD containing footage of Pan Sonic’s world tour of 1999/2000. Shine A Light it’s not. The film, if that’s the right word, was made by Edward Quist. Shot entirely (and appropriately) in monochrome, this is forty minutes of sinewaves, static ‘snow’, angular fractals and strobing. Like Pan Sonic’s music, it uses the extremes of its limited pallette – from blinding white to total darkness. In between this, ghostly images of Vainio and Väisänen emerge through the visual noise. Usually staring intently at their machines, and occasionally twiddling a dial. It’s not hard to fathom why a straight shot concert movie wouldn’t work!

The film fits Pan Sonic’s dystopian steampunk world perfectly. But it is, dare I say it, a bit boring to watch for forty minutes at a stretch.

The music itself is thirteen tracks of Pan Sonic at their most user-friendly. Bearing in mind that this stuff is nearly ten years old, they still sound like the future – albeit a bleak one dominated by monolithic concrete, grey skies and collapsing, malfunctioning machinery. Ever-present is the crackle and hum of raw electricity. It sounds positively dangerous – a nest of exposed cables hissing voltage like snakes. Pulses throb, oscillators oscillate, and bass frequencies rumble like earthquake aftershocks. It’s menacing music – cold, inhuman and bleak; yet strangely seductive. The duo stay away from the ultra-high frequencies that sometimes can make listening to them physically uncomfortable, and there are few journeys into the realm of total abstraction that characterized the middle section of last year’s brilliant Cathodephase.

There are three versions Kuvaputki on this disc, each shot through different angles. I’ve not watched all three, but what I did see of the alternate versions didn’t appear to be radically different. The music is the same on each. Each piece appears to have three titles too – one in Finnish, and the other two in a combination of English, physics terms and Sci-Fi gobbledegook. Personally I’ve never been a huge fan of music DVDs – I prefer to listen rather than watch. And I can’t see me sitting watching Kuvaputki again any time soon. The music’s another matter. It may not be quite as out there as parts of the last two records, but it’s prime Pan Sonic.

Tracks
1 Alku / Thermionic Emission / Vidsync 1
2 Maa / Electron Gun / Vidsync 2
3 Toisto / Control Grid / Spore
4 Jhoto 4 / Crucuform / Transverse
5 Valikhota / Anode / Electric Field
6 Askel / Ion Trap / Plasma Horda
7 Kahalaus / The Glass Envelope / Swamp Grinder
8 Kone / Hathor / Electronoid
9 Esikierto / Phosphor Curtain / Neodynium
10 Murskaus / Irradiance / Centercore
11 CSG Sonic / Bleeder Resistor / Embryon
12 Telakoe / Shadow Mask / Raetheor
13 Loppu / Implosion / Control

Website
www.kuvaputki.com

Tracks can be streamed live.

TV Review: Motor City’s Burning: Detroit from Motown to the Stooges

This one hour film was shown last night (Friday 7th) on BBC4, and so is available to watch as a stream on the BBC iPlayer for the next week (UK only).

Digital channel BBC4 has a growing reputation for producing intelligent, well-researched and interesting documentaries – the kind of thing BBC2 used to do before it became clogged up with gardening, cookery, lifestyle and reality shows. Following last year’s excellent films about Factory and the New York punk, disco and hip hop scenes of the late seventies, Motor City’s Burning explored the music of sixties Detroit and put it in the context of the political, social and economic events of the time.

In the forties and fifties, Detroit was the industrial heart of America, and it was the assembly lines of the motor giants that famously inspired Berry Gordy to create a new way of running a record company. The aim was to establish both an indentifiable sound and a guarantee of quality and craftsmanship. Many people, then and now, bemoaned the lack of artistic freedom at Motown, but for the best part of the decade, the label achieved exactly what Gordy had envisioned and became the pre-eminent popular music of the era, at least the pre-eminent indigenous music. What it failed to reflect was the increasing alienation and victimisation of the city’s black population, and the fascistic behaviour of a (white) police force which acted more like an army of occupation.

The city exploded in 1967 with riots that left 43 dead. It was an event that changed Motown, and eventually led to its relocation to Los Angeles. It also helped politicize a section of white youth who rejected the American Dream as the consumerist mirage that it was. The MC5 and the Stooges were their bands. George Clinton’s P-Funk collective took parts of both Motown and the proto-psychedelic punk of the white bands. It was an incredibly creative time for the city. But Detroit’s economy, dealt a body blow by the riots and subsequent ‘white flight’, continued to decline alongside the car industry that was its lifeblood. Today it is, as David Was described, like a peanut shell with all the nutrients sucked out of it.

This documentary told the story of the entwined fortunes of the city and its music, with great archive footage, and an A list of interviewees including the three Stooges, two MC5’s, the lovable old rapscallion John Sinclair, Lamont Dozier, Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson (looking like she couldn’t even have been born in the sixties!). It did what documentaries ought to do – told the story clearly and entertainingly, with informed interviewees and no melodramatics. I’d recommend it to anyone, both as a piece of social as well as musical history.

TV Review – Pop On Trial (BBC4)

BBC4’s Pop season is proving to be fairly enjoyable, with the three part Pop Britannia documentary series, and all manner of resurrected shows and films from the archives. One of the lynchpins of the season is Pop On Trial – a series of five shows chaired by Stuart Maconie that each examine a particular decade, before some kind of vote establishes the “best decade ever” or something equally daft. As a concept it’s pretty fatuous – archive clip and talking head telly at its most basic, with a budget spent mainly on a set of swivel chairs and a big plasma screen. Each show (there have been three so far, covering the 50s, 60s and 70s) has a series of clips illustrating various facets of that decade’s music, followed by a discussion with a trio of middle aged blokes, such as Tony Blackburn, Pete Shelley, Pete Wylie and Neil Innes, which usually boils down to “that was brilliant / that was crap” with a few anecdotes chucked in. And this goes on for an hour. It really ought to be the acme of tedium, but instead it’s like being down the pub with your mates having an earnest, beer-fuelled debate about something essentially trivial which, nevertheless, you all treat with a life-or-death seriousness. It sucks you in to the point that you even join in! It’s so compelling, even Tony Blackburn seems like someone you’d want to go for a pint with. It’s TV aimed squarely, almost manipulatively, at muso saddoes – and I’m ashamed to say that I’m totally hooked.

TV Review – O Thou Transcendent: The Life Of Ralph Vaughan Williams

When it comes to scheduling eccentricities, this must take the biscuit: 9am on New Year’s Day for a three hour documentary film! At least Channel 5 commissioned it – this was the project that was notoriously rejected by some drone at the BBC who thought it didn’t fit in with their “vision”, or some such garbage, but that they would be willing to reconsider if Mr Vaughan Williams had any personal appearances lined up that would raise his profile. Quite. Since he’s long been my favourite composer, it wasn’t something I was going to miss merely because of the odd hour at which it was shown..

Tony Palmer is a veteran documentary maker who started out in the sixties with some of the first films to take popular music seriously. It seems, though, that all he has done before was leading up to this. O Thou Transcendent is a magnificent film that explores in depth both the music and the man.

Ralph Vaughan Williams has been lumbered with a public image of an avuncular stalwart of old English values – of Anglicanism, public school, summer meadows and Classic FM. It’s a gross and inaccurate caricature, as this film made clear. It’s true that he was born into the upper Middle Class, related to both Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, and he was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford. But he transcended class, and was a bundle of contradictions. Although he wrote much church music, including many familiar hymns, he was a lifelong agnostic. And although he wrote the music for the present Queen’s coronation, he refused all subsequent offers of honours and was a staunch socialist. He was passionate about English folk song traditions, and was an avid collector alongside Cecil Sharp and his friend Gustav Holst. Much of his music made free use of folk song. When the First World War began he was 42 years old and exempt from active service, but this didn’t prevent him from volunteering to give his services at the front as a humble stretcher bearer (many of his friends who volunteered with him died in the conflict).

Palmer’s film uses historical footage, new and archive interviews with a surprisingly large and diverse set of people (the archive audio of RVW speaking reveals a man with a very dry wit and a master of understatement), and extensive excerpts of the music newly recorded especially for the occasion. He portrays Vaughan Williams essentially as a pessimistic humanitarian and humanist whose bleak outlook was, nevertheless, accompanied by a great feeling for his fellow human beings. Watching bleary eyed on a wet Ne’er Day morning was probably not the finest time to see it – especially punctuated by extremely irritating ads for winter sales and the like. Happily it’s available on DVD without all that annoying frippery. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in RVW in particular, or 20th century classical music in general.