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.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.