The exuberant director of this film introduced it by telling us that it dealt with two of his most treasured things, friendship and music. Gabriel Nesci told us of his excitement at being in Manchester (he’d been present for the first showing in the UK of his film earlier during ¡Viva!). His previous film had opened the festival in 2014 and in addition his love of music was based on his appreciation of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s. Gabriel seems a nice guy but I always take what directors say with a pinch of salt. His new film is stuffed with music, much of it written by Gabriel himself, but the only ‘Madchester’ references I noted were a Stone Roses poster and a Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ tee-shirt. But then I’m no expert on Manchester music and I enjoyed the film very much.
I saw recently somewhere a definitive statement that “feelgood films are not a genre”. Maybe not, but they comprise a category of films used by audiences round the world. “A great Friday night movie” is a similar concept and in the unlikely event that a movie offering as much fun as this were to get distribution in the UK, I’d recommend it highly. In a more mundane way, IMDb calls this a comedy-drama-music film. It involves three middle-aged guys who were once a youthful rock trio in Buenos Aires with the band name of ‘Auto-Reverse’. Just at the moment they were to release their first album and take the local scene by storm in 1992, their creative musical talent suddenly upped and went back to Spain with no explanation. The other two gave up music and the tapes of their songs were seemingly lost. Twenty-five years later, Axel (Santiago Segura), now an IT systems maintenance man in Madrid, spots that a Buenos Aires radio station is planning a ’25 years ago’ concert and he decides to fly back to Argentina. The other two band members are Javier (Diego Peretti) who is now a biology teacher and Lucas (Diego Torres), a lawyer. When Axel arrives he discovers both his ex-colleagues are having major problems but he worms his way back into Javier’s life and urges them to get back together as a band. When they discover that their one superfan from 1992, Sol (Florencia Bertotti) still has the original cassettes of their songs, everything seems possible – until it goes wrong.
The plot rolls out down some well-travelled lines but it’s all well done. The narrative drive is shared between Axel and Javier. Axel is presented as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his behaviour is mined for many of the laughs. I suspect that Santiago Segura’s star persona is also being used in some ways. He’s an actor known outside Hispanic culture for his work with Guillermo del Toro in cameo parts in most of del Toro’s English language films. But in Spain he is known for his work with Álex de la Iglesia and also as the eponymous central character in the Torrente franchise of five comedy crime films in which he writes, directs and stars. These are some of the most commercially successful films in Spanish cinema. Segura’s Axel has a stuttering walk and a complete lack of social intelligence, going for unwanted hugs and saying all the wrong things to everybody but also having the autistic ‘savant’ capacity to write music and deal with all kinds of music technologies. He’s the ‘computer nerd’ with real talent and the opposite of Lucas the smooth lawyer. Axel’s behaviour is highlighted by his attempts to communicate with the woman he fell for but couldn’t speak to in 1992. Abril (Claudia Fontán) is now in a wheelchair after an accident and the exchanges between these two might raise a few eyebrows given the current concerns about typing characters. However, I don’t think the film is offensive in any way, in fact it’s quite sensitive. Javier’s problems are with his teenage son and his bored students, cue the amazement of digital natives when their teacher is revealed to have been a bass player (who writes and sings the lyrics for Axel’s songs) and appears performing on YouTube. Javier is the main focus for drama – he hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death and he fears he’s losing his son. Axel also carries the potential for drama and the mystery of his disappearance all those years ago waits to be explained. Lucas has just been found out as a suspected fraudster. He plays the drums – ’nuff said.
I won’t spoil all the other elements of the narrative. Overall, I think this is an engaging comedy and the kind of Hispanic film that ¡Viva! has often screened, allowing us to enjoy comedies from another language culture. Gabriel Nesci’s songs are pretty good too.
Here’s the Spanish language trailer (no English subs):
I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.
It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.
Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.
Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?
Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):
This is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of rock biopics and archive features covering bands from the 1960s, 70s etc. The short (60 mins) documentary was shown on BBC1 last night, will be on iPlayer in the UK for the next 6 days and re-broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday 29 May. It’s certainly worth a look, not least for the still photography and home movie footage from the period.
In 1971 the Rolling Stones left the UK to go into exile in France, partly because the kind of English country house style living some of them had followed was becoming difficult to manage and partly because their finances were so messed up by poor financial management that they felt that they needed to escape the progressive tax regime of the new Labour government – Bill Wyman makes the usual completely erroneous claim that the tax rate was ‘93%’ (erroneous because the full ‘super rate’ only applied to a proportion of earnings). I’d been a big fan up until then, but lost interest in the early 1970s.
With a contractual obligation to produce an album, the Stones decided to try to make one in the South of France. With band members scattered across Provence they tried to hire various recording facilities but couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up using Keith Richard’s mansion Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer. They rehearsed and performed in the basement and recorded instruments played in different rooms in the house – with everything pulled together in a mobile recording studio truck parked in the drive. The whole process took forever but eventually produced a raw new sound which after tarting up in Los Angeles became one of their best albums, Exile on Main Street.
The documentary is both intriguing and frustrating. The montage technique of Super 8 film, black and white contact prints and hand drawn graphics used throughout the film matches the design of the eventual album sleeve and provides a strong nostalgic kick for anyone with brain cells left to remember the era. It was truly another world at that time – but perhaps only if you were in your twenties and deeply engaged with rock culture. Someone in the film argues that rock – and music culture generally – was much more dominant then and I think that is probably accurate.
The narrative of the film is confused and incomplete. We learn something about the characters and the working conditions, but not a lot about exactly why this was a ‘new sound’. In some ways the strongest statement is about the differences between the band members. Jagger is absent a lot of the time – unsurprising perhaps because he’s about to marry a pregnant Bianca. When he does turn up he is organised and more seems to get done. Bill and Charlie play up to their ‘ordinary blokes’ status and it’s sad to hear Bill whingeing on about having to import PG Tips and Bird’s Custard. They live some distance away and presumably have families. Meanwhile Keith plays the resident musical genius operating to a different biological clock and imbibing far too much of everything. His partner Anita Pallenberg is the only woman actually living in the house and seems to look after the logistics of daily life. Finally the younger men – Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, saxophonist Bobby Keyes, recording engineer Andy Johns etc. just enjoy the access to drugs, booze and girls. It doesn’t add up to much. The interest is in the snippets of information about the locals. What did they make of the Stones? France never had the same kind of rock culture – though it did have Johnny Halliday and Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways the Stones were just another bunch of wealthy Brits strutting about the Riviera where they were tolerated. Pallenberg comments that you could hear the music from the centre of the town and we see scenes indicating their celebrity attraction – but without the obsessive media intrusion they might attract in the UK or US.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of reference to the visit made to the villa by Gram Parsons. He appears in some of the photos taken by Domenique Tarlé and posted on Rolling Stone‘s website. According to an Observer article by Sean O’Hagan, Jagger was jealous of Parsons’ influence on Richards. Around this time I guess I was more interested in Gram than the Stones and I do wonder what he and Richards could have come up with if Jagger had been kept away. But, of course, that didn’t happen – Gram was “asked to leave”. The film includes various talking heads giving making fairly banal points. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Jack White and Don Was I’m sure have interesting things to say, but not here. I think what I learned most was about how the album artwork was designed and put together by Robert Frank.
The film was premiered at Cannes and the BBC screening is bookended by Alan Yentob and Mick Jagger – the latter introducing the Cannes screening in French. It was made by Passion Pictures, produced by John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak. According to IMDB, the film has been sold for TV around the world so you should get to see it wherever you are. Fans on IMDB are rather lukewarm. One suggests watching it with the sound turned off on the original album playing through. (The film was released to go with yet another digital re-issue of the album with 10 extra tracks.) Another suggests that at least there are clips from films that haven’t been properly released – Cocksucker Blues?