Gilbey on Film: Prophet without honour

Paul Kelly has made a wonderful film about Lawrence's tortured genius.

If pop music appreciation is a solitary business, so is making the stuff, at least for Lawrence, late of the ethereal 1980s band Felt and the 1990s glam rock outfit Denim. Although I have only a cursory knowledge of Felt, and Lawrence's latest endeavour Go-Kart Mozart ("It's the first B-sides band in the world"), Denim means the world to me. The band's two albums, Back in Denim and Denim on Ice (there was also a bits-and-pieces compilation, Novelty Rock) are painstakingly crafted artefacts that function simultaneously as mighty pop music and a commentary on the nature and history of pop. The most obvious cinematic equivalents would be Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven or François Ozon's Angel, movies which draw upon, revive and celebrate aesthetic conventions which are now largely defunct.

In Paul Kelly's poignant documentary Lawrence of Belgravia, we see what life is like now for one of British pop's enduring eccentrics: preparing to be evicted by the council from his London flat for rent arrears, and fearing every footfall in the hallways; refusing to reform Felt or play old songs on tour; reflecting on a world of supposed technological advance in which the new Go-Kart Mozart album won't be released on his beloved vinyl and people don't get paid for writing online ("I knew the internet was rubbish!"). His face sunken and pasty from years of drug abuse, his circumstances depleted as he reflects from his tower-block balcony on dreams of marrying a supermodel, Lawrence is nevertheless an inspiring, if unlikely, symbol of artistic purity. Explaining his resilience, he says: "No one else has got this far, and failed"

In the same week as seeing Lawrence of Belgravia, I also watched Julien Temple's fine documentary Imaginary Man (made for the BBC's Imagine strand) about Ray Davies. At times, it seems only success separates Davies from Lawrence; certainly the scenes in which the former Kink is wandering through the park ("I wonder what that duck's thinking") or reflecting on his schooling ("I was sent to a special school to find out what my problems were. I think my problem was that I knew what was coming") mark them out as kindred spirits. A double-bill of the two films would be ideal.

At the London Film Festival this week, I spoke to the director, Paul Kelly, about the eight years it took to make Lawrence of Belgravia.

What made you go from liking or admiring Lawrence to thinking he could be the subject of an entire film?
Lawrence is such an eccentric character with such a bizarre worldview, and such incredible optimism, and I wanted to share that with people. I'd known him since the mid 1980s; I thought he was so interesting that he deserved to have a film made about him. The premise of the film was that I wanted to make a documentary that didn't use interviews with celebrity fans or any band members, no talking heads at all; it's just Lawrence's worldview, expressed partly through the interviews you see him conducting with journalists, and his circumstances over the past eight years. He was making this album in 2003, so I thought I'd follow him as he made it, you know, that classic documentary thing. But that took eight years; it wasn't purely that the album took eight years, of course. There were other factors.

You do refer in a montage to Lawrence's drug problem, but I wondered why you didn't go into it more.
I show that little montage referring to the drugs, the mental health issues and money problems, but it's such a complex subject that if you dwell too much on it, you find it can eclipse everything else in the film. Then you'd lose the most important thing, the focus on Lawrence. You can clearly see the result of getting into heroin. Just because he's not lying around shooting up, doesn't mean the subject is hidden. Also, I never wanted to do the Lawrence story, or the Felt story or whatever. It was always about trying to get the essence of him on screen because he's fascinating.

How would you define his relationship to the past?
He only looks back to work out where he is and where he's heading. He has no desire to actually revisit that, which is why he's so stubborn about not reforming Felt, and not playing any Denim songs. He was on the phone to me last night until 3am talking about this Stone Roses reunion tour. Lawrence was saying, "I can't believe they're doing that. I thought they were gonna stick it out like me."

He says in the film that he craves fame and celebrity, but isn't there a part of him that is deliberately thwarting any chance of that happening?
I think he subconsciously messes things up for himself, I don't know if that's a fear of achieving the success he craves. Part of it is being uncompromising. There's a point in the film when he mentions Lou Reed, his hero, reforming the Velvet Underground, and he says: "I'm stronger than that." Which is funny -- Lawrence being stronger than Lou Reed! But he is, in a sense. Some blogger doubted the claim in the film that Lawrence has had offers to work with other people. Well, I can tell you he's been asked many times. I've seen him turn down things that are guaranteed money-makers. I won't say who it was, but he's had big offers to write for other people, and I've sat there with him and said, "Lawrence, you will get a shitload of money for doing this." But he just turns it down.

How did that attitude affect the filming?
He'd deny this, I'm sure, but I think he's got an inbuilt mechanism that will always make sure things don't happen. I thought the film wasn't going to happen. I got the feeling he didn't want it to end, and he didn't want the album to be finished, so he somehow found ways of stretching things out. As long as he's busy and has a target he's okay. I know he'd like money, to have nice clothes and live in a nice flat but he doesn't crave, you know, getting a helicopter and flying somewhere 'cos he's got nowhere to go and he doesn't like socialising.

He's very eloquent and funny when he's talking to journalists in the film. Is he like that all the time, or is that him being "on"?
He definitely performs for journalists, he's very good at that; he'll spend all day thinking about interviews, and he's got such a unique, bizarre worldview. That's rare. I heard Will Young on Woman's Hour today and I thought, "Christ, why does this guy get airtime?" I've got nothing against the guy but he hasn't got anything to say. Then you get someone like Lawrence who just can't get his voice heard.

Does he know his own worth? Does he know how passionate people are about his work?
I think so. I think he's very aware of that and very protective of that. He wants everything to be so perfect, but he's so protective of what he does that he kind of smothers it a bit, doesn't let it go out there and breathe. He writes great pop songs, and they deserve to be heard. Someone at the Q&A after the LFF screening asked him what his favourite Denim album was, and he said: "Back in Denim. Denim on Ice. Novelty Rock." He counted them out on his fingers. He basically listed all three albums! Someone else asked if he ever thought about the legacy he was going to leave behind, and he said: "What do you think I've been doing for the past 30 years? Of course I bloody think about it!"

How do you feel now looking back over the last eight years?
Well, it wasn't the only thing I did in that time! But, you know, Lawrence has a lot of issues, he can't function in a regular way. He is clinically ill, I guess. He can't for various reasons make an album in a regular way, just a day here and a day there. He disappears for months on end. I knew it would be protracted. I thought it might take a year. I never dreamed it would take eight.

What's the future for the film?
I've had a lot of interest from distributors. I don't know if it'll be seen as commercial. It felt to me that if Dig! or The Devil and Daniel Johnston could do well, there must be an appetite for the kind of music documentary about these strong characters. I made it very much as a cinema film so I'm hoping it'll have a theatrical life.

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.

Show Hide image

No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.