Because he's a Stone Roses superfan, Shane Meadows's chronicle of the band's comeback feels like a dereliction of duty

The Stone Roses are back, whether you like it or not. Two new films, Spike Island by Mat Whitecross and Shane Meadow's Made of Stone, boast of the band's greatness, without offering much of a reason for it.

Good luck escaping from the Stone Roses at the moment. Last week they played vast shows in London and Glasgow. This Friday brings the release of the pleasant but scarcely earth-shattering Spike Island, the (fictional) story of five ticketless Mancunian schoolmates making their way to the band’s 1990 show on the Mersey Estuary. Already in cinemas is The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, a documentary by Shane Meadows (This Is England) in which the circumstances of the band’s recent reunion are contrasted with a brief history of their brief career. And now there’s this blog post on the NS website of all places.

I wasn’t at this month’s live shows—having attended a gig on their lacklustre 1995 tour to promote The Second Coming, and seen them (accidentally) at their infamously poor Reading Festival appearance the following year, I feel I have given the extreme sport known as Stone Rosing a more-than-reasonable go. But I was a casual admirer of the band the first time around, and I have seen Spike Island and The Stone Roses: Made of Stone, so I feel fairly confident in claiming that they are truly the band that helped devalue the phrase “the band that helped define a generation.”

If I had to pick a side in the musical mishmash that was Madchester, I was always more of a Happy Mondays boy first time around. Sure, the Stone Roses’ first album was intoxicating. It seemed briefly that they could get away with anything, even a perverse failure to reproduce their magic on stage: a mere ten seconds of live singing by their frontman Ian Brown could force one to revise upwards even the lowest musical opinion of Linda McCartney. But the Mondays’ music was infused with humour as well as soulfulness; they were clearly dotty over music. The Stone Roses’ first love was always themselves.

It wasn’t specifically the messianic bent of their self-mythologising that irked me—the religious imagery of titles like “I Am the Resurrection” and The Second Coming. Most rock’n’roll has that swagger and arrogance; that’s why rock musicians are rarely confused with watercolour artists. But there seemed such a shortfall between the bragging and the music. Clearly hundreds of thousands of fans feel differently. But while Meadows’s film reminded me of the euphoria, it didn’t correct the impression that this was a group of talented men who, for reasons not entirely under their control (such as the legal wrangles with their former record company which put them out of action for several years), stretched a small amount of music and goodwill an awfully long way.

Perhaps a more persuasive and less starstruck filmmaker could have built an argument for the band’s greatness. Meadows is not that man. He admits from the outset that he turned into an over-excitable two-year-old when the Stone Roses’ singer Ian Brown commissioned him to make a documentary about the band’s reunion. Putting aside the key telling detail in that statement—that this is an officially sanctioned movie in which the musicians rather than Meadows presumably had power of veto—that’s an endearing admission, though it does make one ask: Who really wants to see a film directed by an over-excitable two-year-old? Predictably, discernment and analysis prove not to be on the cards.

The historical footage is nicely assembled and intermittently revealing. It’s easy to forget that Brown was quite the scamp; in a rather agonising interview with a TV journalist in the late 1980s, he glows with attitude, but is careful to temper any bolshiness with flashes of that inviting smile and those twinkling eyes. I had completely forgotten that he even had that seductive side; it’s one that was missing later on from, say, Liam Gallagher, who could ape the arrogance well enough but always came up short on charm.

But it’s in the latter-day material, the bulk of the film in other words, where there’s a distinct lack of nourishment. The choice of Meadows as director makes sense when it comes to finding idiosyncratic characters to interview outside concert venues, or during the mad dash to a free Stone Roses gig in Warrington, but in all other respects he seems to have been chosen merely because, as a self-declared fan, he can be the band’s lapdog. Nowhere is this more evident than when the band almost breaks up for the second time after its drummer, Reni, storms off stage after a gig. Not only does Meadows steer his camera away from the fracas, he never even addresses the rift once the band has reconvened for its homecoming shows in Manchester’s Heaton Park. The first elision is the more understandable one—if he can’t get access to the band in the aftermath of their troubles, there’s not much he can do about that. Using drably-shot concert footage as concealer, though, is no kind of answer. It feels closer to a dereliction of duty.

What Meadows has produced in effect is the cinematic version of those glossy brochures that go on sale at high-end concert venues—your Earls Courts, your Wembley Arenas. You can spill your jumbo cola or the ketchup from your hot dog on them and the mess comes straight off. That’s The Stone Roses: Made of Stone. There’s precious little context about Manchester or the environment from which the band emerged; no attempt to get under the skin of the group or between the notes of the music. In Warrington, one fan talks to Meadows on the subject of what makes the Stone Roses special. “You know and I know but you can’t explain it, can you?” Maybe not. But no one would hate you for trying.

The Stone Roses: Made of Stone is on release. Spike Island opens Friday

Ian Brown of The Stone Roses performs at the Isle of Wight Festival, 2013. (Getty)

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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump