11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Last night, atop the brutalist concrete conning tower of the Barbican Art Centre, in a tiny, sloped screening room dubbed Cinema 2, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley introduced two new films by his friend and collaborator Paul Kelly. Screening as part of the Barbican’s Pop Mavericks series Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixtures Story and Lawrence of Belgravia, were by turns funny, sad, romantic and tragic; haunting glimpses into the small-ads narratives of rock lives lived upstage from the main action. Continuing in the same minimalist vein established on 2003 Saint Etienne travelogue Finisterre (itself a nod to the static poise of Patrick Keillor’s 1994 city homage London, and author Geoffrey Fletcher’s writings on the Big Smoke’s tawdry marginalia) Kelly has produced two films that possess the eerie calm and inquisitive eye of a gentleman eavesdropper, politely listening in to softly told tales of failure.
Lasting just over 40 minutes Take Three Girls told the story of home-knit pop-punk Cambridge girl-group Dolly Mixture who (deep breath) toured with The Undertones, played John Peel’s fortieth birthday party, recorded a wealth of true pop classics, gave U2 a support-act leg-up, wrote songs for Lena Zavaroni and influenced the whole Riot Grrrl movement. But floored by on-the-road illness, decooled by Captain Sensible and dismissed as “the Slits meet the Nolans” by a UK music industry too hung up on black leather hipness Dolly Mixture are now near forgotten. Less an act of resuscitation than a document of three alarmingly well-adjusted women looking back into the empty rooms of their past, Take Three Girls was soft-voiced and autumnal, more a film about the loss of youth and the curse of innocence than your stock pop doc.
At just 20 minutes, Lawrence Of Belgravia was half the length but twice as dismaying, a yellowed fragment of a work-in-progress concerning the eternally deferred ascent to fame of the former Felt and Denim frontman, Lawrence (pictured below). With its beautifully composed opening shots of brown medicine bottles, hypodermic syringes and overflowing ashtrays, and accompanying crestfallen voiceover as the singer explained his forthcoming eviction, Lawrence Of Belgravia initially seemed closer in spirit to Arena’s 1986 Jeffrey Bernard documentary or Molly Dineen’s 1987 BBC2 account of Colonel Hilary Hook’s return home to England from Kenya; a peripatetic digression down the curious path of a singular life.
However, as with Take Three Girls, Kelly is not in the business of mythmaking. In person Lawrence can be charming, witty and gently odd. With a camera crew in tow, the need to outline his misanthropic weltanschauung becomes all, the wit and romanticism of past incarnations dying on the vine. Memorably described as “a victim of his own experiment” in David Cavanagh’s The Creation Records Story and a casualty of Britpop’s hedonistic game-playing with street-level drugs in the mid 90s, the once teetotal Lawrence now looks like some forsaken wraith, the ashen ghost of juvenile pop dreams thwarted. And while there remains dark comedy in his world-view, particularly on the unsuitability of the name Lawrence in the world of pop (“My brother? Dead lucky! He’s called Sam! Works on a market!”), the smile soon freezes on the face, as when Kelly’s camera scrolls down hand-written details of a personal ad Lawrence is thinking of posting, moving from a list of near comic dislikes (“sewers, Burma, families, vegetables”) to a shorter list of his likes (“Pooping, genital mutilation”).
A work in progress, Lawrence Of Belgravia could eventually transform into the UK pop equivalent of Terry Zwigoff’s Robert Crumb documentary, a haunting portrait of a dysfunctional soul using art as a survival mechanism. Or it could remain forever a fragment, the unfinished document of a still unfinished dream. In its current version it stands as one of the most affecting films this writer has seen all year.
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 10:40 AM GMT 05/11/2008