Wednesday 29 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KING ROCKER review

The abridged version of the 2020 Sheffield International Documentary Festival came to an end a couple of weeks ago, except for some screenings the organisers are hoping to hold in cinemas later in the year, when and if there's a way to do them safely. One of the films I was able to see at the festival that I hope will be screened for an audience at some point is Michael Cumming and Stewart Lee's King Rocker, an exploration of the history of the semi-obscure Midlands-based post punk band The Nightingales and its lead singer and figurehead, Robert Lloyd.

Starting in the shadow of Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre, King Rocker first tells the tale of an 18ft tall King Kong statue that momentarily graced the lawn there in the early 1970's, opening much debate among the locals of why it was there and what relevance it had to them. The story of this statue - and the subsequent travels around the country it took in the decades since its removal from Birmingham - form the backbone of this doc, finding in it something of a talisman likened to Robert Lloyd and his band who, to quote the film, kept on going "in the face of commercial and critical indifference".

The Nightingales are a band with a loyal, albeit small following, having never found mainstream success despite the best efforts of lead singer Robert Lloyd over many years. Well, if you are a fan of the band and the output of Lloyd, you'll absolutely love this, as director Michael Cumming and 'presenter'/'guide through the history of the band', Stewart Lee, have made a film that matches the irreverent tone of Lloyd's lyrics. If you've never heard of the band and have arrived at this film as a fan of Stewart Lee, you've probably just found yourself in a mostly overlapping Venn diagram you never knew existed, as there's a close friendship and a number of similarities between the two men's outlook on the world. This film is largely composed of conversations between Lloyd and Lee who, refreshingly, allows his cool on-stage demeanour to relax a little, revealing himself to be an often giddy fan of Lloyd's, happy to wander around with one of his teenage idols and listen to his anecdotes. Even when Lee tries to provide some semblance of a traditional interview format, asking softball questions about the meaning of Lloyd's lyrics, he's happy to abandon it when Lloyd's cheeky response is "the problem with you is you over-analyse everything".

In most 'portrait of an artist' films this lack of a traditional structure would keep the central figure in the shadows, but here it works well, using the figure of the 18ft King Kong as a stand-in for Lloyd as it animates scenes from his life, calling on the recollections of others to fill in the blanks when Lloyd's recollection of the time doesn't match up to the legend. One such example is when verifying the urban legend that comedian Frank Skinner was temporarily in Lloyd's first band, The Prefects. As Lloyd can't recall the truth, Lee gets Skinner to appear on camera for a brief moment to give his version of events, including an audition that required him to sing The Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop on the pavement outside a Yates's Wine Lodge. This is a tactic that director Michael Cumming (Brass Eye, Toast of London) uses on a few occasions to try to establish the truth when recollections are a bit hazy (Paul Morley, Nigel Slater, Robin Askwith all appear), and it's funny every time.

On the evidence presented, Lloyd was and continues to be something of a creative dynamo, trying his hand at frontman and singer for various bands, an attempted solo career with an early 90's Hugh Grant-ish floppy curtains haircut (signed to Virgin. "Bunch of cunts", says Lloyd), a music video producer, a TV sitcom creator and a postman. Quite why these projects failed to succeed is up for debate - drummer Paul Apperley offering the suggestion that "everyone loved us apart from people who bought records"- but it's impossible not to admire Lloyd's tenacity and willingness to have a go at anything. The film does touch on his personal life, most touchingly the relationship he has with his son, who's able to offer his view of what life was like with Robert Lloyd at his lowest ebb as his father.

Like I said at the start of this review, you might not be approaching this documentary as a fan of Lloyd's work, but by the time we reach the music video finale I would be surprised if you're not fully converted. It's a playful, verbally dextrous, often scattershot look at the unpredictable career of a musical behemoth who has been misunderstood in his own time and unappreciated by the masses. Given Lloyd's ability to bounce back in the most surprising of ways, I wouldn't count him out just yet.


Thursday 9 July 2020


Directed by Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the Genesis drummer/singer) the title Bring Down The Walls refers to a civic space set up in 2018 in New York City that in daylight hours brought people together to question the current state of the American prison industrial complex, before turning into a club playing house music at night times. At Bring Down The Walls, their argument was that reform is not effective enough and therefore abolition is the only answer to the problems of harsh sentencing and a rapidly expanding prison population (currently over 2 million) that is disproportionately made up of young men of colour.

There's a lot of weighty, increasingly topical statements made across the course of the film by a number of speakers talking from their own experiences. In first hand accounts from ex-prisoners guilty of petty misdemeanours, serious crimes, and in one case innocent and exonerated after spending more than half his life behind bars, they talk about the sentences handed down to them and how the system is rigged against them due to their economic or social background. Added to this, parole boards are choosing to add years to someone's sentence without the need for a judge, jury or even a lawyer present to act on their behalf. The film also covers the fact that although slavery may be illegal, by definition it isn't if you are incarcerated. Prisoners may get paid 10 cents an hour for their work (there's pushback from one speaker as he argues against this being called a job), but the fact that arrest rates for young black men are so disproportionately high, particularly in some areas of the country, makes a compelling argument that the system has managed to work against its black citizens to revert back to darker times in America's history.

The film skips between these speeches, delivered almost always to a crowd of young, socially aware people who can relate via similar experiences that have befallen members of their families, to scenes of the nightlife aspect of the space and performances from some of the previous speakers who have found a way to process their prison experiences into music. At one point in the film Collins goes as far as to include what amounts to a music video that doesn't seem to bear any relevance to any of the speakers, but one would assume does to the BDTW space and the people that frequented it. 

As an argument for the need for inclusive civic spaces, open to all to share their experiences, it's a convincing one. As a document of a club night with house music playing to a rapturous crowd and vogue balls (judged by FKA Twigs) attended by mostly black, queer youth, it sure looks like a fun place to be. But much like the dual uses the space has, the film is a bit scattershot, like stream of consciousness documentary filmmaking. Director Phil Collins was a key player in the creation of the space and this filmed document does deliver its message, with compellingly put forward arguments. A choice has been made to not include any explanatory inter-titles, and with minimal voice-over we are forced to listen to ascertain the important details, like one of the assembled audiences. Never notably at odds with the joyous frivolity of the house club scenes, this is a bold, humanistic film asking for change in one of America's most contentious institutions. There are voices that deserve to be heard, and Collins' film gives them a platform with style.


Monday 6 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - FLINT review

 Filmed over the course of 5 years, Flint looks at the environmental and health issues that have befallen the residents of Flint, Michigan, after the State Governor forced them to change their water supply in a cost cutting measure. Director Anthony Baxter (You've Been Trumped) follows a number of the locals as they campaign for a solution to their ongoing concerns about the state's lack of effort to fix the problems they created.

Described as 'the Silicon Valley of its day', Flint was once a thriving industrial city thanks to the motor industry that employed most of the residents. Now that the car manufacturers have largely deserted Michigan, Flint now has one of the highest poverty levels in the country; something that incoming Governor Rick Snyder hoped to change by drastic cost cutting across the region, including the decision to have Flint source its water supply from the local Flint River instead of the Great Lakes. A catastrophic move if ever there was one, the Flint residents were forced to drink and bathe in brown water that the powers that be claimed was completely safe, even after testing revealed it to have dangerous levels of iron, and the rates of stillbirth and infant mortality skyrocketing. Baxter and his team appear to have been on the ground in Flint since early on in the scandal, as locals are forced to buy gallons upon gallons of bottled water to consume and bathe in. Mothers show evidence that their children developed skin conditions from showering in the water they were told was okay to use, and even when Governor Snyder relented and the water was reverted back to the original Great Lakes supply, the damage done to the pipework infrastructure continued to poison Flint residents for years.

There's plenty of elements to this film that show Flint to be a microcosm of many of the issues that are plaguing America at the moment. During one of many protests of government buildings, Reverend Ira Edwards couldn't put it more clearly when he states, "You see what happens when you elect a businessman to run the state? He doesn't care about the people he hurts... he doesn't care about the lives he effects. Enough is enough". Chants of "No justice. No peace" and placards of 'Flint Lives Matter' from the BAME residents offering further evidence that not all people in America are considered equal. The issues shown here are many, and are documented with an eye for detail by Baxter and his team; however this does lead to the film having a lack of consistent focus. A balanced and level-headed account of what is understood to be the facts, Governor Snyder and his decision making abilities is pushed to one side whilst we follow the genuinely inspirational grass roots campaigning of Flint residents, and the efforts of two highest profile experts from Virginia Tech and Water Defense. There to test the supplies for Flint to ensure it can be safe to drink again, it turns into a complete soap opera as defections, uncomfortable revelations and threatened lawsuits (including against the filmmakers), for lack of a better term, muddy the waters.

The film has a strange relationship with celebrity, as Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense charity appears in Flint, in what appears to be a genuine attempt to use his star power to make sure the issue is not forgotten, albeit (unbeknownst to Ruffalo) based on questionable science and research methods. Concurrently, the film is so enamoured by the involvement of Alec Baldwin as a (underused and arguably unnecessary) narrator, that it's prepared to change the course of its finale when, after seeing a rough cut of the film, Baldwin decides to increase his involvement and actually sets foot in Flint. It's a gallant attempt on the part of both men to try and highlight what is a serious issue, and perhaps this was an attempt by Baxter to add some sort of closure to proceedings that are far from over, but from a filmmaking point of view Baldwin's involvement in the production only adds another non-sequitur to what is already an over-long and over-stuffed narrative, and doesn't help to solidify any of the points raised in the film.

Every issue raised in this film is an important one that needs attention, and the continued mistreatment of the Flint residents is clear, but by trying to cover all of the issues in the 2 hour running time, Anthony Baxter's film struggles to wade through the narrative threads to deliver a stronger, cohesive argument. The most resonant element of the film, particularly now during the Covid-19 crisis, is seeing how the community sprang into action, as volunteers deliver bottled water supplies to other locals, and educate them on the unseen dangers of things they once took for granted. Were the film to have centred itself on these campaigners and protestors and not got bogged down in the minutiae of (real and bogus) test results, this could have been a more powerful statement about the community of Flint as a whole.


Saturday 4 July 2020


Telling the life story of Keith Haring, the enfant terrible street artist who found an extraordinary level of fame in the New York art scene of the 1980s, holding regular parties with celebrity friends like Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Yoko Ono in attendance; this new documentary speaks to his family members and art world friends to uncover the genesis of his particular style of artwork.

If you don't know the name Keith Haring, you will probably still recognise the bold, graphic line drawings of his art from campaign posters, album covers and even as a backdrop to a Madonna tour. This film is largely composed of contemporary interviews with his friends and family; but also Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31, has a constantly present voice here, with excerpts taken from countless interviews (both audio and video) he did at the peak of his fame. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Haring would cut photos of The Monkees' Davy Jones out of the girl's magazines he was allowed to buy, and write anti Richard Nixon graffiti on local buildings using soap. Clear to all the Pennsylvania was not a big enough canvas for him, he moved to NYC in the late 70s to attend the School of Visual Arts, and to explore his sexuality in the gay nightlife of the East Village. Haring was an artist who, similarly to one of his idols who he would work with, Andy Warhol, knew the importance of exploring his own image; and so this doc makes use of a ton of archive photos and self-shot videos made by Keith in the early 80s.

Having taken inspiration from the graffiti artists that would spray paint on the sides of subway trains, he adapted this approach into something more befitting his style, using the subway system to travel from station to station, drawing his 'baby' and 'dog' cookie cutter outlines on the blank, black, unused advertising hoardings and gaining infamy among the many commuters who would see his work spring up every day. Whereas the graffiti artists (among them Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, who are interviewed here) used the trains as a moving canvas, Keith Haring used the trains as a vessel to transport you through the art gallery he created across numerous subway station platforms. His style was simple in execution, but unique, bold and inventive.

What this doc tries to express is why Haring, who was a formally trained artist able to present his work in major exhibitions around the world, chose to include his artwork to walls and lampposts, gratis. He was among the artists who knew how his work could entertain and delight, but in the capitalist Reagan years of the 1980s, was not coy about making money from their artwork. He even went as far as creating 'The Pop Shop' to allow people to buy both mass produced and unique pieces of his art for a reasonable price  (he was prolific, popular and profitable); but he would also design murals on blank walls in his beloved New York to highlight his increasing activism as the 80s went on and his health began to worsen.

It's incredibly touching to see his now elderly parents display so much of the trinkets, drawings and art pieces they have kept and collected from their son. Even if they do seem to be completely baffled by some of the art, their pride in his achievements is clear. A moving, intimate study of an artist, with a poppy post-punk, Devo and B-52's infused soundtrack; a prior knowledge of Haring's work is not needed to appreciate his story or his cultural relevance, with his ability to create meaningful, impactful activist art especially resonant in these times.


Keith Haring: Street Art Boy was available via the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform, and is now available via the BBC iPlayer.

Friday 3 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - THE GO-GO'S review

Part of the Rhyme and Rhythm strand from this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest and available to rent from the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform the festival has launched to combat the lack of cinema screenings due to the Covi-19 crisis, The Go-Go's re-unites all of the key band members of the '80s all-female pop-punk group.

Be honest, unless you were around in the early to mid 1980s, The Go-Go's is a band name that you might be familiar with through cultural osmosis, but could you easily name one of their songs? You're more likely to recall the name of one of lead singer Belinda Carlisle's solo career ballads; or at least that's true for anyone whose mother had Heaven is a Place on Earth on tape and would play it on every car journey (like myself). I say this not to cast doubt on the need for a documentary about The Go-Go's, but to ask why such a pioneering all-female pop group, who played all of their own instruments and had a huge impact on their audience at the time, hasn't enjoyed the same level of cultural appreciation as, say for example, The Runaways?

Thankfully, Alison Ellwood's documentary is not just the Belinda Carlisle story, and sheds an impressive amount of light on the history of the band, right back to their early days in the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s where rhythm guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle decided to form a band, toured the U.K. with Madness and The Specials and then huge arenas around the world when they became one of the biggest success stories of the early MTV days with music videos played in heavy rotation. Ellwood gets full access to every member of the band (even those who either walked early on or were pushed out due to the change in their musical direction), all interviewed in their lovely looking houses and looking nothing like the rebellious, punky teens they started life in the band as.

Reminiscing on their touring days, each member comes across as likeable enough, but as the interviews reveal, they were a band clearly hungry for success and willing to step over people on the way. Hey, that's showbusiness. The film does reckon with the often cutthroat nature of the music biz, particularly the discrepancy in pay the non-songwriting band members were getting, including frontwoman Carlisle. It's clear that even with some mended bridges, there's still some bad memories and residual bitterness towards the chief songwriting members of the group, although conversely they had a heroin problem (when 1980s era Ozzy Osbourne asks you to leave his dressing room, it's time to get help), and a desire to sing at least one song in the album leading to a dramatic departure and the eventual dissolution of the group. As one member states, they were "like sisters. Sisters who stab each other in the back".

What's most enjoyable about this doc is that you don't need to have been a fan of the band beforehand to enjoy this in depth history of the group, delivering all of the ups and downs, in-fighting, power struggles and reconciliations you could hope for from a true rock and roll band's story. Perhaps the defining story of The Go-Go's is that no matter how hard they toured, due to their gender, they were never taken seriously as musicians. The archive concert footage shows that they were a legitimate punk group in their infancy, dealing with rowdy skinheads on their early UK tour telling them to "show (their) tits", and even when their sound evolved into something more poppy and radio friendly, magazines such as Rolling Stone sexualised them on the front cover in a reductive way.

To answer the question I posed at the start, it's frankly ridiculous that The Go-Go's aren't a more highly revered band. Sure, they certainly had an influence on the generation after them (including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna, who appears here to express her love for them), but with a selection of fantastically fun, pop classics (and don't even get me started on guitarist Jane Wiedlin's solo single Rush Hour, possibly the catchiest song ever recorded), they really should be getting reappraised by the 80s obsessed youth of today any time now. This film should go some way towards that, as The Go-Go's is a well orchestrated doc that will please long time fans and those just discovering them too.