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.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge