Gilbey on Film: the chequered history of rockumentaries

Why the White Stripes' live film is a blast from the past.

How quaint to think of people settling down in their cinema seats to watch the White Stripes' live documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, which was released last Friday.

I realise that the brief theatrical outing of such films is really just a promotional exercise to shift more copies of the DVD (and, in this case, the accompanying live album, too), as it was with the Blur film No Distance Left to Run at the start of the year. But there's always been something faintly absurd about watching concert movies in the cinema, aside from those rare occasions when the picture in question is such a corker that the old divisions between performer and audience are scarcely palpable -- as in the obvious but honourable cases of Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense, and D A Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. When I'm watching David Byrne grooving with a living-room lamp during "Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)", or Angie Bowie striking poses around the dressing room of the Hammersmith Odeon, I'm in pop-movie heaven.

As someone who paid to sit through warmed-up gig-going leftovers such as Sign o' the Times and The Cure in Orange (the shame), I don't nurse a longing for the concert movie's comeback. My preferred species of musical cinema (outside the musical itself, that is) will always be those movies in which the band members make some sort of gesture toward acting -- think of the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman's first film, Catch Us If You Can, or Madness playing versions of themselves in the underrated Take It Or Leave It.

And that's not forgetting the film on which a thousand childhood dreams of the pop life were founded: Help!, which showed the Beatles all living in the same house. As if that wasn't cool enough, each band member entered their shared abode through his own separate front door. Bliss. Unless, of course, you happened to be the Arcade Fire, the Blue Aeroplanes or So Solid Crew. (Or, for that matter, The Fall. Can you really picture Mark E Smith giving anyone else a door key?)

That's the sort of film I would start a petition to resurrect. There have been sporadic examples over the past decade or two -- Spiceworld The Movie, the would-be trippy All Saints caper Honest, S Club 7's Seeing Double and and the maligned but seriously strange Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn't Happen Here, as well as 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin'. But I wonder if the wind hasn't been taken out of its sails by two competing sub-genres. One is the cringingly frank documentary (the finest examples of which remain Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and DiG). The other is the fictionalised biopic, spawned by early 1970s Ken Russell movies: Velvet Goldmine begat 24-Hour Party People (both featured scenes of real figures -- Oscar Wilde in the former, Bez in the latter -- being delivered to Earth by flying saucer) and from those films sprang Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

It's a shame the now-tarnished Britpop movement missed out on its opportunity for celluloid immortality. Suede might have suited something vaguely apocalyptic. Oasis would've been just right as the villagers in a Straw Dogs remake. And take a minute to envisage Menswear, Sleeper, Gene, Shed Seven and the like, all holed up in an isolated mansion while Luke Haines of the Auteurs roams the hallways swinging a machete. Who wouldn't have paid good money to see that?

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.