Pop will eat itself

The Stone Roses reunion shows how much we love revisiting our musical past.

"The day after Man City win the European Cup"- that was bass player Mani's prediction for the day when an eager public could expect to see a reformation of one of the great Nineties groups yet to jump on the reunion band wagon. United-supporting Mani probably thought his quip, made back in 2006 following City's modest 15th place finish in the Premier League and two years before Abu Dhabi investment transformed the club, was the sporting equivalent of declaring "when hell freezes over". Well times, as we know, have changed; maybe he jumped before he was pushed.

The Stone Roses' reunion, initially two concerts in Heaton Park, Manchester next June that will be followed by a world tour, grew to seem increasingly likely, not just as the fortunes of Manchester City improved, but also as a growing number of their peers succumbed to the temptation of one last swansong and, let's face it, one last payday. Mancunian compatriots The Happy Mondays did it in 2004, as did James in 2007, when Tim Booth rejoined the band's original line-up. Blur finally set aside their differences in 2008 only to be rewarded with a headline slot at the following year's Glastonbury, as were Pulp, the band who struck lucky when they replaced the unavailable Stone Roses for the festival in 1995, who reformed in May and made a critically acclaimed cameo at Worthy Farm this June.

Going further back, the list of rock and roll second comings is pretty illustrious: Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground. But given that all those reunions ended up being temporary and not a single studio album was recorded in the brief hiatus when all those hatchets were buried, are we foolish to get excited by the latest get-togethers, and what is the effect of this phenomenon on artists trying to make a name for themselves for the first time?

Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, is clearly concerned about the potentially stifling impact that the "bands reunited" trend may have on creativity: "There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history ... When we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch?" he writes. It's easy to see why, for many festival and concert organisers, booking acts made famous in days gone by is a safer option. The secret to the success of reunions like those of Blur and Pulp is that they chose to play a limited number of high profile concerts, thus maximising their appeal to their pre-existing and newly acquired fan bases. The limited edition approach to the comeback if you like. And for many fans that is the appeal: tick a box you didn't think you'd be able to, say you've seen Jimmy Page play live, never mind that he's in his sixties, not this thirties. This, though, clearly leaves the returning artists with a limited shelf-life - once the novelty of their reappearance has worn off, so will their ability to fill stadiums. Indeed, in the modern era it is only Take That who have managed to maintain their popularity in both their pre and post break-up eras, and that largely is due to the fact that they aren't still churning out the same old tunes they were 15 years ago.

Whether the Stone Roses reunion endures long enough for them to make a long overdue appearance at Michael Eavis's festival in 2013 (there is no Glastonbury next year) remains to be seen. But if it does it'll be hard to shake the feeling that the crowd is participating in the mass re-enactment of a musical era long since passed. Although there will always be those über-nostalgics on hand to tell you it's not as good second time around. Now, what odds on Oasis headlining Glastonbury 2020?

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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