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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser