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.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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