Film Review: Best Before Death
At a time when certain noted indie chart figures have proved to be a let-down, Bill Drummond is looking more and more like a proper hero.
Throughout his days as half of The KLF, he could be a contentious figure, apt to getting lost in a grand conceptual haze containing Hebridean islands, Tammy Wynette, butchered sheep, Extreme Noise Terror and million-pound bonfires (as his old mucker Julian Cope once observed, Drummond could always have bought a million children a quid’s worth of sweets instead). But he remains a smart, genial character with a genuine sense of life as an open-minded quest. Remember, he and his KLF cohort Jimmy Cauty toured community halls in the wake of their money-burning stunt, asking audiences to try and explain to them why they’d done it.
Now released on Blu-ray, Paul Duane’s documentary film Best Before Death observes Drummond on his current project, a 12-year global odyssey in which he spends a fortnight at a time in cities that hold special meaning for him. Almost ritualistically, on arrival at each, Drummond crosses a bridge while slowly beating a big drum, then seeks out a clean shave before settling into baking and distributing cakes around a strict radius, offering a free shoe-shine service and ultimately building a bed from scratch using locally-sourced wood, which he then raffles off within the community.
Now, you might well view this as a rich man’s egocentric, attention-seeking, self-mythologising folly, and in all likelihood Drummond himself wouldn’t argue you down. But it also appears to give meaning to his days – what he believes to be the rest of his life, in fact, hence the title – and it fits into his usual MO of turning that life into one big art project. Drummond comes across as engaging and amiable, albeit slightly intense, and there’s a pleasing lightness of touch to Duane’s film that serves the subject well. It doesn’t exactly grill Drummond (it becomes a running joke that he’s uncomfortable being asked anything about his chart-topping past) and the words ‘burning’ and ‘a million pounds’ are never spoken. Instead, unfolding at a languid pace, the film gives Drummond plenty of rope to allow his complexities and contradictions to spill out.
It’s never just a straight-ahead profile though, so much as a document of Drummond’s project, focusing in on two of his stop-offs, Kolkata in India and Lexington, North Carolina in the US. It doesn’t miss an opportunity to convey the sights, people and places he encounters, making for richly evocative, and often starkly contrasting viewing. Quite often, the most awkward questions Drummond’s asked are posed by the members of the public he ropes in to assist him. There are also gentle observations of his collaborative working relationship with artist Tracey Moberly, who’s along for the ride to photograph his endeavours.
The film acknowledges and embraces Drummond’s reservations about being the subject of a documentary, as he’s fiercely wary of any kind of pat motivations and explanations, given as he is to pronouncements like “why, where, what and when are the handmaidens of evil” and “if you explain it, it becomes a thing…an understandable thing”. Instead, he’s eager to pose, rather than answer, questions about what art is and where it sits in relation to commerce. Can cooking, baking and carpentry be considered as art, for instance? If Drummond were entirely earnest in this, it would become insufferable, but instead there’s plenty of laughter and playfulness to him. Duane captures his innate, willing ridiculousness, which sees him stripping naked and jumping into a grubby canal within the first three minutes.
“The art,” Drummond declares, “is not the bed – it’s the dreams dreamt in the bed”, and to Best Before Death‘s great credit, it explores his philosophy without ever becoming wanky, depicting him simultaneously as eternal art student and wind-up merchant. True to his own intentions, it avoids any concrete explanations.
This new Blu-ray release shows off Drummond’s picturesque journey to its best, crispest advantage, and the disc comes overflowing with extras, including a host of fine, if admittedly tangential, deleted scenes, assorted short films drawn from the same project and early work by Duane that boasts a retro aesthetic and a Kafkaesque tone. There’s also a 40-minute on-screen discussion between the director and Drummond, plus a dry feature commentary from the pair in which Duane does a lot of the talking while Drummond insists he doesn’t even know what a commentary is. All are agreeable and there are some great moments buried away in there, but ultimately none rivals the film itself for entertainment and insight. Drummond emerges as equal parts inspired, frustrating and admirable, and frankly, it’s hugely refreshing for a pop culture figure of advanced years to remain so bright, so thought-provoking and so willing to embrace and revel in life’s rich daftness.
Best Before Death is available now as a limited edition Blu-ray from Anti-Worlds.
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