Last week Keanu Reeves turned 50. Just let that sink in for a minute. Keanu Reeves. ‘Woah, dude! Excellent!’. Fifty. It’s enough to send you running to the nearest mirror gasping, ‘So, hang on… how old am I?’
While you’re at it, consider the fact that this year has been dubbed the 20th anniversary of Britpop. Twenty whole years since the heady days of Roll With It vs Country House making the national news. But now that the bluster and posturing has all faded away, and Jamie Theakston isn’t on things quite so much, we’re enough distance away to realise who really won the Britpop wars. It wasn’t Blur. Or Oasis. It was Pulp.
On paper, Pulp’s story is pretty clear-cut. For many years they hobbled along in obscurity before developing a skewed, spangly pop sound. Luckily, at that moment in time, the mainstream was moving in the same direction. Suddenly Jarvis was hailed as a heroic new celebrity, popping up on Pop Quiz, Top of the Pops and at every social event going. His arse, you’ll recall, shared a stage with an unwitting Michael Jackson.
Without question, Common People became the song of their career, every bit as era-defining as The Specials’ Ghost Town or The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. But the success of that song, and Jarvis’s ubiquity, began to smother them. Sessions for their next album became protracted and difficult. The result, This is Hardcore – like Love Life that followed it – was fascinating and original, but only fitfully satisfying. The band drifted apart. Jarvis moved to France and started a family. He recorded a pair of so-so solo albums. He returned to the UK and became a Sunday afternoon fixture on BBC 6Music. He’s currently getting established as an editor-at-large for Faber & Faber.
Now, virtually none of that information is conveyed in this documentary. The words ‘Michael Jackson’ don’t even merit a mention. It doesn’t follow the ‘Friday night on BBC Four’ music documentary template. It doesn’t really tell the band’s story as such. And it’s all the better for it.
The rock documentary genre has had an almighty shot in the arm in recent times. There are now loads of the blighters. Generally they fall into two categories: The Tale of the Intriguing / Obscure Artist, of which the best is the genuinely moving Searching for Sugar Man, about Sixto Rodriguez; and The Souped-Up Live Video, which is built around gig footage but brings in other elements. Shane Meadows’ rather underwhelming Made of Stone might be the most obvious example here.
Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets is definitely in the latter camp, but it really runs with the idea. The key event it’s structured around is Pulp’s hometown show at the Sheffield Motorpoint Arena on Saturday December 8, 2012. It’s looking likely to be enshrined in Pulp history as their farewell gig. But the film only uses the live footage very sparingly, and even then it deploys a welcome helping of wit. When the band launch into Common People, for instance, the audio soon fades out, to be replaced by a rendition by Sheffield Harmony Choir synchronized to the images. There’s a terrific performance of Pulp’s underrated single Help the Aged by an old folks’ singing group. Waiting outside the arena in the cold before the gig, a group of female fans burst into a spontaneous chorus of 2005 classic Underwear. This might sound a bit tricksy, but it manages to revitalize a pretty dog-eared form of filmmaking. These days – sigh – everyone can make their own concert videos on their phones. From the professionals, you want something a bit more thought through.
What this manages to capture is the spirit and atmosphere of Sheffield on the day. In fact the city and its people are the stars here, every bit as much as Pulp themselves. There’s a newspaper vendor who gets more screen time than certain members of the band, while a starstruck little girl who’s never even heard of them pretty much steals the show. These characterful Yorkshire faces are presented in the washed-out colours of a 70s photo, evoking Martin Parr‘s evocative snapshots. Jarvis and co are present and correct in interview clips, still seeming adorably genuine. But then, Pulp’s tour manager is here too, and he’s great value. It’s nothing if not democratic.
So it’s not a straightforward Rise and Fall of Pulp story (though the story of their rise has already been told, not least in the 2011 Sheffield music scene documentary The Beat is the Law). It provides no particular insights into the workings of the band, with no mention of any bust-ups or indeed whether they have any future plans. No muck is raked. The uninitiated might be left baffled, whereas those of us who squeal at the very sight of keyboard player Candida Doyle will be in clover.
What emerges, though, whether by accident or design – via this patchwork of live footage, interview material, those curious cover versions and Yorkshire folk seen drifting about in orbit around a big local event – is actually the true spirit of Pulp, rather than a string of facts, figures and anecdotes. The city that spawned them shaped their character completely. The participants, from the famous to the anonymous, are seen to be funny, odd, sly, wise, innocent, gentle, cheeky, sweet and warm – all the attributes that made the band themselves so cherishable. Gradually, and to great effect, it illuminates their very soul, rather than spelling everything out in 30 foot lettering.
So in its own rather eccentric way, it’s a fine tribute – don’t let’s say ‘eulogy’, not just yet – to one of the genuinely special bands of their era, whose music shows no sign of dating quite as much as some of their more feted contemporaries. Ultimately it’s an object lesson in that old maxim: you can take the band out of Sheffield, but you can’t take Sheffield out of the band.
Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets is currently screening at a number of international film festivals and is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray