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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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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