Tag Archives: music film

Lawrence of Belgravia

Lawrence of Belgravia

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

This subtle portrait of a reclusive indie musician seems to have generated one of London Film Festival’s warmest responses, with extra screenings needed for all the fans of Lawrence, the Birmingham-born progenitor of 80s and 90s bands Felt and Denim. Lawrence’s story is not a happy one: Felt’s ethereal guitar pop was arguably superior to, say, The Smiths, yet failed to rise above cult status; with Denim, Lawrence nailed 1990s indie’s obsession with nostalgia early in the decade, with a skewed wit and obsessive rigour that was probably a bit too much for Oasis and Blur fans. Mental health and drug problems have dogged his current band, Go-Kart Mozart, whose perverse synth-rock songs are exercises in self-sabotage lit by some occasionally inspired tunes and arrangements. Rather than construct a biopic focusing on his more palatable past, director Paul Kelly lets the present-day Lawrence steer the film, and it’s the better for it, albeit searingly moving and uncomfortable in places. We see Go-Kart Mozart stumble through rehearsals, recordings and some live shows, while Lawrence is interviewed by journalists (who seem in the main to still be holding a torch for Felt), sifts through archives of personal ephemera and moves into a new council flat on the edges of the City of London after being evicted from his previous home. The capital’s loneliness, its sharp, cold angles, are soulfully evoked by the filmmaker who also helped create St Etienne’s paean to London, Finisterre (2005).

Kelly’s a friend of the singer, and you suspect some of Lawrence’s more unpleasant, paranoid traits have been softened in the edit - although not that much; there’s a scene in which a new Go-Kart song seemingly about a fear of vaginas gets an airing. What he draws from Lawrence most valuably is his sharp critical intelligence and instinctive feel for pop music’s power and history - things that seem unextinguished by failure or addiction or age. Listening to Lawrence talk about music, the secret magic life of it, is a pleasure, however spectral and neglected he looks now: if things had worked out a little differently, if Go-Kart’s ‘We’re Selfish and Lazy and Greedy’ had taken off like ‘Common People’, perhaps he, like Jarvis Cocker - another almost-failure from the 80s who triumphed in the following decade - would be signing Faber deals and headlining stadia while pontificating about rare records on the radio. It’s this plucky eccentric almost-a-contender status that I think some of my fellow viewers of Lawrence of Belgravia seek to confer on him, but while it’s well-meaning, it implies a slightly sour triumph; Lawrence quite obviously would have liked to have been much more of a real star before becoming the outsider-ish ex-star he now appears to be.

Musicians from the 90s, thought to be retired, seem to appear in the media at almost weekly intervals these days with news of a tour and a hint of some precious ‘new material’, while BBC4 documentaries on Creation Records and films like the recent account of Oxford’s alternative music scene, Anyone Can Play Guitar, recount indie’s various ‘golden ages’. Lawrence of Belgravia is both part of this trend, and a disruption of it, because his presence and participation stop us from celebrating this recent past too complacently. He is something of a ghost at the nostalgia feast; a ghost with a comedy song about Rwandan landmines and Um Bongo. The light in which we’ve cast ‘indie’ and ‘the 90s’ fades into an agoraphobic sickliness; not everyone got out OK.

It is to Kelly’s credit that, despite the sadness at its heart, his film is so sincere, warm and affectionate. I loved it, but it left me chilled to the bone, writing 2000-word blog posts into the small hours, coshed with memories and having a good cry to Denim’s ‘I’m against the Eighties’. It was quite a trip, so I would advise any 30-something music nerds with similarly delicate dispositions to approach this film with caution.

Frances Morgan

The Miners’ Hymns

The Miners' Hymns

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 June 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director: Bill Morrison

Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson

UK/US 2010

50 mins

Bill Morrison and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns made its first appearance last year in Durham Cathedral, a setting that appears at the end of this film, which is constructed from archive footage of Durham miners’ lives from the 1900s through to the pit closures and strikes of the 1970s.

Perhaps because it was originally conceived as a live music and cinema performance, with Jóhannsson’s powerful score played along with the film by a brass ensemble, The Miners’ Hymns‘ impact lessens slightly when transported to the small screen with this DVD release. Not only do we lose Morrison’s haunting double-screen set-up, but also the warmth and presence of music performed live in a very significant (not to mention resonant) space. Excerpts from the performance are included here as an extra, and it’s easy to imagine the chills felt by the audience as the building they sit in appears in ghostly multiples on screen, making clear the film’s dual themes of loss and continuity while the music swells around the cathedral’s ancient walls.

However, the opportunity to pore more closely over the footage in The Miners’ Hymns, sourced by Morrison from BFI National Archive as well as local TV archives, is a welcome one, as is the chance to appreciate Morrison’s skill in transforming this documentary material into poetic, often mysterious, cinema. While showing us some of the miners’ daily graft in unsentimental detail, the director, whose 2002 film Decasia was an ode to the degenerative processes of old film, is also mesmerised by the formal qualities of his source material, lingering on the coal itself as it’s hacked from its seam and poured in obsidian-like fragments through the machinery that will take it to the surface. Elsewhere, in contrast to the dark underground footage, men pick up coal fragments on a pebbled beach and load them into a horse-drawn cart, in a slow, meditative sequence that feels especially timeless.

This sense of temporal oddness is deliberate: Morrison has trawled the archives for sequences that echo one another over the years, so the men and horses we see in one shot might be from the 1950s; in another, the 1920s. This device, particularly when we see children from two different generations playing on slag heaps, is very moving, but its strangeness stops it being overly romantic or nostalgic - rather, it’s slightly distancing. Perhaps Morrison’s literal distance from his subject matter - in that he’s from the US - adds to this effect; a similar quality seems to be present in the way Jóhannsson, who’s Icelandic, tackles his musical source material.

Music is at the core of The Miners’ Hymns, from the title - taken from the song ‘Gresford’, which commemorates a Welsh mining disaster in 1934 - to the choice of brass instrumentation, inextricably associated with colliery bands. Jóhannsson’s score is simple but cumulative in effect: short melodic sequences are repeated and built upon throughout the film, with a layer of electronic texture and concrete sound used sparingly alongside some of the more industrial, abstract footage. With each note slow and measured, we’re invited to focus on the timbre of the brass, noting its austere, mournful qualities and drawing parallels with the heavy machinery and raw power of the industry it laments. Occasionally the dynamics are a little extreme, with dramatic, emotional swells in volume at what feel like odd points in the film; again, you can imagine this aspect of the music being far more effective in a live setting.

Jóhannsson’s melodies are drawn from hymn tunes such as ‘Gresford’, and at times you sense those Victorian, Church of England-ish inflections in a certain cluster or notes or a particularly emotive cadence. But perhaps because he’s coming to them from relatively anew, the composer makes these familiar tunes fresh, interrogating the passion and faith at their core. I started the film feeling that the music was too ‘obvious’; yet by the climax, where miners process into Durham Cathedral for the yearly Miners’ Gala, it was hard not to be swept up in the solemnity and dignity of both sound and picture. Both Jóhannsson and Morrison treat the miners’ stories with great respect, teasing out the elements that resonate with them as artists with starkly moving results.

Frances Morgan