Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: just add music

From portraits of Pulp and shoegazing to the sounds of Richard Hawley and Summer Camp, pop kept it big at this year’s Doc/Fest.

Simran Hans
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Richard Hawley arriving at Chatsworth House for the premiere of All is Love (2014)

Richard Hawley arriving at Chatsworth House for the premiere of All is Love (2014)

From concert film to artist biopic and the increasingly popular live score, music-led documentaries are perhaps the most accessible of all factual sub-genres. Several of the documentaries at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest milked their musical credentials – some more successfully than others.

Florian Habicht’s Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, the festival’s ‘pink-carpet’ gala opener, falls frustratingly flat: unable to cement itself as either a handsome concert doc or a portrait of Sheffield through the eyes of working-class characters. Of course, it was warmly received at its City Hall showcase, with Jarvis Cocker and co greeted with rapturous applause at the subsequent Q&A.

An even more grandiose setting was Chatsworth House (of Pride and Prejudice fame) – at sunset, no less – for the world premiere of Kim Longinotto and Ollie Huddleston’s Love is All. Using footage from the BFI and Yorkshire Film Archives, this whistle-stop tour of the 20th century’s on-screen courtships is a pleasant if skittish assortment of images – but it was Richard Hawley’s lush, swooning score, reverberating around Chatsworth’s outdoor screen, that made the film a deliriously romantic experience.

Summer Camp performing their soundtrack to Beyond Clueless (2014)

Summer Camp performing their soundtrack to Beyond Clueless (2014)

The visceral pleasures of the live score were also realised at screenings of both Paul Kelly’s ode to post-war London How We Used to Live (accompanying which Saint Etienne performed their original score), and Charlie Lyne’s Beyond Clueless (ditto Summer Camp, their twanging guitars and humming synths all the more hypnotic and enveloping at full volume).

Known for the pithy and irreverent insights of his Ultra Culture blog, Lyne has produced a prodigious piece of criticism with Beyond Clueless, a confident crowdfunded archive-essay film. Sharing its format with films like Mark Cousins‘ A Story of Film and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, it constituted of cuts from over 250 teen movies made between 1995-2004, bookended by Clueless and Mean Girls. Lyne doesn’t articulate his reasons for settling on this particular epoch (unless you track back through his blog), though one might assume that they might start with familiarity, Lyne himself being a child of the 90s. Certainly there’s a boldness in the decision to dive straight into this particular period’s previously under-examined treasures.

Fairuza Balk, foreground, in The Craft (1996) – and narrator of Beyond Clueless, in which The Craft is critiqued (2014)

Fairuza Balk, foreground, in The Craft (1996) – and narrator of Beyond Clueless, in which The Craft is critiqued (2014)

The film takes an anthropological approach, treating his subject with respect and probing thoughtfulness. By allowing the ‘teen’ movie to transcend the sub-genres of horror, romance and farcical comedy, Lyne casts his net wide, lending equal weight to lesser-known films like Ginger Snaps (2000) and Slap Her, She’s French! (2001) as to their mainstream counterparts She’s All That (1999) and Eurotrip (2004).

While the analysis is an extension of Lyne’s voice as a writer (transferred into the smoky American drawl of cult actress Fairuza Balk), traversing the terrain of teen identity, sex, hierarchy and groupthink, the film feels as light and enjoyable as any teen movie. That’s partly thanks to Summer Camp’s moody and evocative score, which elevates the film from intriguing thesis to arthouse mood piece. Drawing on the genre’s music video-style fast cutting, abstract montages elide different films to demonstrate teen-movie tropes with stylish effect. One of the most inspired examples sees an ethereal two minutes dedicated to the genre’s sexually-charged swimming-pool moments, soundtracked to hazy, shimmering guitars.

Music is also at the heart of Eric Green’s Beautiful Noise, a love letter to the shoegazing genre and hence, according to its own crowdfunding page, “the first-ever documentary about one of the most influential music movements of the 20th century”; it combines VHS footage of bands like Ride, Slowdive and Lush with talking-heads interviews with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields. A British phenomenon beginning in the late 80s, shoegazing was so-named by the NME, in a playful riff on these bands’ introverted performance style. Reznor describes the genre’s woozy sound as something that “makes you feel like you’re high or underwater.”

My Bloody Valentine’s Joe Dilworth in London, 1988: a still from Beautiful Noise (2014)

My Bloody Valentine’s Joe Dilworth in London, 1988: a still from Beautiful Noise (2014)

Green is keen to play up shoegazing’s influence on contemporary alternative music: “they didn’t sell a lot of records, but everyone who heard them started a band.” But the film is at its clunkiest when it tries to assert the genre’s influence on modern musicians like Sigur Rós and M83. The film is much more comfortable reflecting on and reliving shoegazing’s heyday in the company of Cocteau Twins members Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, or Jesus and Mary Chain’s William Reid.

Another problem comes with attempting to visualise a genre whose image was decidedly diffident. You could call Beautiful Noise’s unobtrusive form very much representative of the shoegazing ethos of letting the music speak for itself – and its crudely crafted construction captures the genre’s lo-fi aesthetic, but the film eventually begins to feel like a cut-and-paste PowerPoint presentation, skipping through the genre’s history in a linear and often repetitive fashion. As the genre’s slow dissolution already suggested, sometimes the music alone isn’t quite enough.

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