Review: Pulp: A Movie About Life, Death and Supermarkets
After struggling for years in the commercial wilderness, Pulp finally achieved fame in the mid-‘90s as one of Britpop’s shining stars. Frontman Jarvis Cocker become a UK tabloid fixture after invading the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance at the 1996 Brit Awards. In 2002, with the band in full retreat from the fading sounds of Britpop, Cocker took the opportunity to slyly acknowledge his pop icon status: the music video for 'Bad Cover Version' featured a cast of music celebrity impersonators performing the song live in the studio, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'-style. Amongst the likes of fake Bono, fake Kylie Minogue and fake Craig David, fake Jarvis Cocker also belts out a line (the real Jarvis appears as Queen's Brian May, complete with huge wig and rock hero guitar pose).
Now Pulp have their own documentary film to cement their place in the pantheon of pop music. However, there is no hint of the rock 'n' roll excess seen in such prominent music docos as Gimme Shelter (death of the hippie dream at The Rolling Stones' notorious 1969 Altamont concert) and The Decline of Western Civilisation Part 2 (relentless sleaze of the '80s LA glam metal scene). Instead, the film concentrates on the humble everyday life of Sheffield, the band’s hometown, where they are performing the final show of their 2012 comeback tour. To emphasise the point, the first time we see a Pulp logo is on the jerseys of drummer Nick Banks's daughter's football team, who the band sponsors.
This defiantly anti-glamour style is consistent with the earlier work of New Zealand director Florian Habicht, who had previously sought to find the poetic in the ordinary by uncovering the secret, often hard case, world of a Far North demolition derby ('Kaikohe Demolition') and a Ninety Mile Beach fishing competition ('Land of the Long White Cloud'). Habicht also continues the vox pop-style of those films here, asking the ordinary folk of Sheffield not only about their thoughts on Jarvis and Co., but also their views on fame and love. A fitting approach, since Pulp's lyrics often focussed on the desperate delights of drab UK suburbia.
While these glimpses of Sheffield life are initially charming, they eventually begin to pale in comparison to the context given by the wry testimony of the band (all current members are interviewed), especially keyboardist Candida Doyle's moving story of using music to overcome her teenage onset of arthritis. Cocker also entertains with his self-deprecating discussion of the band's origins as a way for his teenage self to chat up girls. Especially revealing on Pulp’s history is footage of the band from 1992, on the brink of making the transition from small-time to big-time, performing a last concert in Sheffield before moving to London. Tellingly, the footage shows Pulp’s attempts at organising stage effects worthy of big rock gig falling flat in a charming and comic fashion.
In contrast, the 2012 Sheffield comeback show is a very slick affair, and it is with the coverage of this gig that the documentary moves from being interesting to essential. Shots of ageing sex animal Cocker prowling the stage are expertly mixed with joyful crowd reaction. While the good people of Sheffield provide a level of insight into how Pulp got to where they are, the band themselves are the real story.
Appropriately, Pulp: A Movie About Life, Death and Supermarkets is hitting the regions this month and into the next. Visit the NZIFF to find out more. Meanwhile, it starts a series of North American screenings this week.