Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

I first became aware of the band Pulp around the same time most people became aware of the band Pulp. Different Class, their big breakthrough album after twelve years toiling away and building a critical following, came out in America in early 1996, and I picked it up in the waning days of my senior year of high school. Different Class was a milestone record, sporting mega-hits Common People and Disco 2000, and has been one of those rare albums that never quite leaves my rotation. I put it on fairly regularly to this day, almost exactly twenty years later. It took me awhile to work my way into the Pulp back catalog, which has several solid albums in it, but I followed them going forward pretty closely. They fit right in with the other groups I was obsessing over at the time; Blur, Suede, Morrissey, James, Oasis, Radiohead, and other bands benefiting from the britpop boom of the nineties. But Pulp had an awkwardness, a bookishness that spoke to me as an awkward, bookish teen. Frontman Jarvis Cocker's awkward, spastic dancing and androgynous, angular looks had a style of cool that felt more achievable to me than the pin-up-ready good looks of Brett Anderson or Damon Albarn. Pulp may not have ever occupied the top spot in my favorite bands of that boom (that honor belonged to Suede), but they've always held a special place in my heart. In 2000, during a trip to London, I made it a point to visit Bar Italia, the coffee shop in SoHo that they sing about in the Different Class track of the same name. I still have the saucer and cup I used that night.

Bar Italia, with a cheap disposable camera.
Pulp's sudden success after years of work didn't quite sit well with the band, and they broke up in 2002, shortly after the release of We Love Life. Jarvis Cocker remained active with a couple of solid solo albums and some appearances with other artists, but most people figured Pulp was done for. So imagine my pleasant surprise at the news that Pulp was reuniting in 2012 for an international tour, culminating in, I hoped, a new album. Unfortunately the album never came, and the tour was instead a chance for Jarvis and Co. to give their fans a proper farewell (as Cocker puts it in the film, he wanted to give the band a "happy ending"). We never got a new Pulp album, but we did get Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets, which documents the final night of the farewell tour, as Pulp plays their hometown of Sheffield, England.

The film is a bit of an odd beast, and will likely only appeal to a small segment of viewers, even those who already like Pulp. It's not quite a concert film, as it never shows an entire song performed in its entirety. It's not quite a band history, as the documentary only briefly touches on things that would already be known by most fans. The film attempts to be a street level snapshot and ode to Sheffield, which is a fairly blue collar industrial town in the north of England, and yet we don't get a very detailed view of the place. With all these half measures, it might be a bit surprising that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. But the film does have moments of beauty, and it has aspirations beyond simply showing the band playing their hits, or giving a standard rise-fall-rise rock-doc narrative. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets aims to give a feeling of the place of Sheffield, if not the accurate image of it, and it tries to show how this feeling shaped the band Pulp, which in turn shaped how the townspeople of Sheffield see themselves now.

The concert footage that is on display in the film looks electric, reaching its pinnacle with an energetic, inclusive version of Common People that should renew the song's energy to those who have tired of the two decades worth of overplay and questionable cover versions. It's enough to make one wish for an actual concert film, with the full concert on display. It's hard to complain about what we have, though, when it's as idiosyncratic and enjoyable as this. I'm having trouble thinking of another rock documentary that had a moment as odd and beautiful as a diner full of senior citizens singing an acoustic version of Help The Aged.

Final Rating: 4 (out of a possible 5)

No comments: