Status Quo have ensured the demise of the pop star feature film forever more - and it's a shame

Bula Quo! might be tired, naive and desperately middle-of-the-road, but spare the pop-film genre! I can't be the only one who looks at Rizzle Kicks or Dizzee Rascal and thinks: give those kids a movie.

The pain experienced while watching Bula Quo!, the movie debut of Status Quo, can be dulled slightly by speculating about which stand-up comic will eventually get to demolish the film when it makes its inevitable appearance as part of the Bad Film Club. I saw a particularly fine Stewart Lee takedown of King Arthur at the Barbican six or seven years ago. But maybe applying the same treatment to Bula Quo! would be too easy, like shooting denim-clad fish in a barrel. For all its toe-curling awfulness, the film does exude a startling innocence; in fact, that naivety is bound up with how bad it is—the obliviousness to its own rough edges, the cavalier “will this do?” air which will always predominate whenever a project is engineered as a holiday first and a movie second. (This may not technically be the case, but it feels that way. More love is lavished on shooting the Fijian locations than ensuring that the screenplay makes sense or that the cast consistently exhibit vital signs.)

The conceit of the film is that Status Quo are in Fiji to play a show when their frontmen Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt (you know—the ones who always knock heads for a chucklesome conversation in the middle of their guitar solos) witness a murder. Following this, they are pursued by thugs employed by a snarling crime boss. The good news? The villain is played by the US comic actor Jon Lovitz. The bad news? Lovitz looks lost and despondent and entirely unsure of where he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s not the only one. When I say that Rossi and Parfitt are playing themselves, I wouldn’t want you to underestimate the skill required; perhaps only the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale could render realistically a screen incarnation of the Quo legends. That job certainly seems beyond the talents of Rossi and Parfitt. But let’s not be too harsh. Can acting really be said to be poor when no visible attempt is being made to act in the first place? It’s an important philosophical conundrum.

My disappointment at Bula Quo! may seem strange, but I feel slightly as though I had a horse in this race. I’ve always been fond of films in which musicians and pop stars play versions of themselves. It doesn’t happen so much these days but think of the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s first film, Catch Us If You Can, or Madness in the underrated Take It Or Leave It. The latter picture has an endearing, improvisatory looseness right from the cobbled–together opening sequence showing the band killing time at Gatwick by slapping Madness stickers on the backs of unsuspecting friends and members of the public alike.

And let’s not forget the film on which a thousand childhood dreams of the pop life were founded: Help!, which showed the Beatles all living in the same house. As if that wasn’t cool enough, each band member entered their shared abode through his own separate front door. Imagine how that would work for the Arcade Fire or So Solid Crew. (Or, for that matter, The Fall. Can you really picture Mark E Smith giving anyone else a door key?) There have been occasional examples of this anachronistic species of music film in recent decades—Spiceworld The Movie, the would-be trippy All Saints caper Honest, S Club 7's Seeing Double and the seriously strange Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn't Happen Here. Eminem and 50 Cent also starred in versions of their own rags-to-riches stories: 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ respectively.

But the most recent examples of pop stars branching out into cinema (the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber) have all been concert films or documentaries; even the upcoming One Direction movie, from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, will be a behind-the-scenes job rather than, say, a fictional narrative in which the twinkle-eyed boys bring about peace in the Middle East (I’m just brainstorming here, you understand). Once the world claps eyes on Bula Quo! (or doesn’t), I know that this species of pop/film crossover has little chance of undergoing a resurgence. It’s a shame. I can’t be the only person who looks at Rizzle Kicks or Dizzee Rascal and thinks: give those kids a movie.

Bula Quo! is released on Friday.

Rich Parfitt and Francis Ross of the Quo(tidian) on location in Fiji.

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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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

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 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred