Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

“Grand Prix” by Frankenheimer, and the Shocking Count of Death

September 27, 2017
bradspurgeon

Grand Prix film at Spa

Grand Prix film at Spa

They were the big, daring stars with a halo of danger surrounding them, a sense of not knowing what might be going through their minds for driving at speeds of 300 kph and more in a sport where death was a regular occurrence. Their series was the highest level of its kind, both technologically and in human skill. They travelled from country to country, including in far-flung places away from their home base. They feted their victories in posh parties. And when they lost their racing jobs, they became journalists commentating on the series – and as such were given less respect, or were considered like hyenas smelling blood.

Watching John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” for perhaps the fifth or sixth time last night, I was not only struck more than ever by how little Formula One has really changed in the 51 years since the film was made, but for the first time I also found myself loving the human story that I had always thought was the film’s weak point. And it was really only while watching it yesterday that I suddenly began to do the math and to discover another human story not stated in the film that gives the tale an even deeper feeling of gravitas.

The human story, mixing the racer’s competitive urge and taste for taking risks and the way it affected their personal lives, as well as the technological story and the presentation of the series itself all work in lock-step to produce the greatness of this film. Until Ron Howard’s film “Rush” in 2013, it was commonly felt that there had only been one good film made about the Formula One series, and that was “Grand Prix.” But watching “Grand Prix” with the perspective now of having “Rush” – the story of the 1976 battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for the world title – there is another layer that may be added to the 1966 film. The scene in which the driver named Scott Stoddart, who is played by Brian Bedford, tries to recover from his horrible accident and injuries could be seen as a model for the even more horrendous Niki Lauda recovery scenes in “Rush” were it not that the Lauda scenes were based on the true story of Lauda’s life, whereas “Grand Prix” is fiction.

Yves Montand in Grand Prix

Yves Montand in Grand Prix

And yet “Grand Prix” also uses history to weave its tragic tale, including in the parallels to the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961 during a race that should have brought him the World Drivers’ title. Instead, he crashed, killing himself and 15 spectators, while the world title then went to his teammate, Phil Hill, the American driver at Ferrari (who also appears in the film). In “Grand Prix,” it is Jean-Pierre Sarti, the Yves Montand character, who was heading for the title at Monza, who crashes and dies, and so gives the title to the American driver, Pete Aron, played by James Garner, who drives for a Japanese team.

And so Little Has Changed as Formula One Returns to Malaysia for its Final Race outside Kuala Lumpur

As Formula One prepares this weekend to run its final race in Malaysia, after nearly 20 years at the venue outside Kuala Lumpur, our memory in sport remains very short. Watching “Grand Prix” can remind those who like to criticize the series for not being what it once was, that little has changed. Malaysia was one of the many circuits that so-called “purists” liked to say had no place on the calendar of a series that was born in Europe, since the Southeast Asian nation had no racing culture, no car culture, no fans…. But in the film, the series already travelled to Mexico, and in another 10 years it would go to Japan. In fact, a Japanese manufacturer was involved in the film – as was Honda in reality – trying to win races after a couple of seasons without success, and seeking the best driver and having undergone far too much humiliation through losing. Echoes of Honda in the series now.

Too much money linked with Formula One today? In 1966, the tracks around Europe had sponsors plastered everywhere, but they were mostly car-related sponsors – Champion spark plugs, Castrol Oil, Goodyear Tires, etc. Today, it is watch companies like Rolex, Hublot, IWC and many others, or alcohol companies, technology companies, and dozens of other non-racing companies.

Grand Prix film crash

Grand Prix film crash

It is commonly said that Bernie Ecclestone built up Formula One from a kind of gentlemen’s club in that period to the global business it is today. But while it is true that he organized it and made it into a very powerful global sport – one of the most-watched behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer – it is also true that this can be seen in some ways as a natural progression for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, and become MORE of what it was, as well as diversifying.

Very few of the underlying narratives have changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and improved: Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring (although it was not the same circuit), Mexico and Monaco. The glitzy after-party in Monaco still goes on today.

The cars of the day were beautiful objects, and while they are primitive by today’s standards, they were the highest expression of the technology of the day, as with today’s cars.

Nearly Half of the Real Racing Drivers in the Film Would Die Violent Racing-Linked Deaths

But the most shocking part of the film is something we do not see, or we only see if we know the history of what followed. And that brings me back to that bit of mathematical counting I started to do while watching the film. Just over 30 of the drivers of the day were used in the film in small roles, as extras or just on camera as they raced. It was a brilliant blending in of the star actors with the fictional drivers. The most obvious ones being people like Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt or Jim Clark. But knowing what fate held for them is a hugely poignant thing.

Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film

Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film

Of those 30 or so drivers, 13 would eventually die in racing accidents – or, as in the case of Graham Hill, while flying his airplane in poor weather returning from a racing test session; or in the case of Giuseppe Farina, after running his car into a telegraph pole while driving to the French Grand Prix of 1966, when he was acting as the double and adviser to Yves Montand in the film.

Also in the film, where Stoddart suffers a huge crash near the harbor in Monaco, the following year, at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini, who was also in the film, was killed in a fiery accident also by the harbor.

And here is the point: While Formula One remains a deadly series, as the death of Jules Bianchi two years ago from injuries in an accident the previous year at the Japanese Grand Prix has shown, it has incontestably become safer than it was. The series depicted by “Grand Prix,” while so similar – or familiar – in most other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.

No, it is not entirely what it was. It is better.

Grand Prix film Trailer

Whither Your Dreams? Acchiappa Sogni Gets Its Exhibition at a Milan Public Library

April 4, 2017
bradspurgeon

TAC Teatro

TAC Teatro

MILAN – And the dreams continue! That project I worked on with the TAC Teatro in Milan to help create and to film edit the evening of wandering around the Via Padova quarter of Milan to ask ordinary people of all walks of life what their dreams are, has now been made into a neat little exhibition at a public library in the Via Padova area at the Biblioteca Crescenzago.

I worked with Ornella Bonventre to put the exhibit together, too, and I was proud to now be able to see how it looks – although it will only last a few more days until it ends. The plan is to do another exhibit in the fall, using many more dream collections from different Milan neighbourhoods.

Dream Video Station in Milan Via Padova Library

Dream Video Station in Milan Via Padova Library

But it is already great to see this first exhibit, complete with photos of the people interviewed – including many that were not in the final edit of the video – as well as the video itself on nearly permanent display in the library on a dedicated computer. (Although it is off-screen in the photo above, since there was another video being shown in the same room at the time of the photo.)

Part I Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

Part I Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

And so it is that the film, “Acchiappa Sogni – In Via Padova,” sits near the front of the library, and next to it sits the original “dream” box that we carried around in the film to collect peoples’ dreams. The box is filling up now with many of the dreams of the library users – and we hear that there are many, many children making contributions.

The Acchiappa Sogni – In Via Padova film

The exhibit extends across several floors of the public library.

Part 2 Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

Part 2 Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

So if you happen to be in Milan, get over to the Acchiappa Sogni exhibition, which as it turns out is also near the TAC Teatro, also located in the Via Padova.

Part 3 Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

Part 3 Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

Oh, and, of course, don’t forget to contribute your own dreams. For further information about the original project, check out my original blog item on the launch of the Acchiappa Sogni – In Via Padova video….

Closer Part I Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

Closer Part I Dream Exhibition in Milan Via Padova Library

The Sounds and Visions of CPH:DOX: A Podcast Conversation with Adam Thorsmark

March 23, 2017
bradspurgeon

Adam Thorsmark

Adam Thorsmark

COPENHAGEN – The reason I came to attend the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival this week – which I have been reporting on extensively on this blog – is because it has a special section called “Sound & Vision,” that focuses on music documentaries, as well and another part to it that draws together interesting music groups and visual things – such as the concert by Tindersticks in conjunction with an old documentary, Minute Bodies; or a concert by a Danish band called Shiny Darkly at a film about the career of rock photographer Mick Rock. The man who is the head of both of these musicl sub-categories of the festival is a 32-year-old Dane named Adam Thorsmark. Adam studied film, but is above all a music lover, and has always combined in his career the mix of film and music. In addition to writing music reviews for various publications and other music and film related jobs, it was therefore no surprise that since 2011 he became the head of these music activities at the festival, also known as CPH:DOX.

I had the great luck to find myself being allowed to meet and interview Adam yesterday in the restaurant of the main festival hall. My original idea had been to write a Q&A for this blog from the interview, but suddenly I realized that for a Sound & Vision section of the film festival, it made much more sense to edit the half hour interview down into a podcast. So here is the interview, and please excuse the ambient noise of the restaurant… or perhaps it is a better idea to appreciate it and hear just how lively is this CPH:DOX festival. And to appreciate through the sound of his voice, especially, Adam’s enthusiasm for his job, the official title of which is: Head of Regional Activities & Music.

Podcast interview with Adam Thorsmark Head of Music at CPH:DOX, with Brad Spurgeon

A Seminar, an Interview and then a long wait followed by an explosion of emotion – Day Whatever at CPH:DOX

March 23, 2017
bradspurgeon

Tjili Pop

Tjili Pop

COPENHAGEN – Just about the only really good thing that comes out of a three-hour wait at an open mic to get behind the microphone and be “allowed” to sing only ONE song because there’s no longer any time left in the evening at just after 11 PM is that you have a very good reason to want to put your whole heart and soul and physically being into the song you sing. And that is what happened to me last night as I sang “Mad World” at the Tjili Pop open mic, called Speake’s Corner, in Copenhagen.

I was the first or second musician to arrive for the open mic at 8:30 p.m., but the open mic takes place after a “concert” of four different bands or musicians from roughly 8:30 to what ended up being after 11:00 p.m., and buy the time I got behind the mic it was 11:20 and I was told that I could only do one song. All the participants of the open mic only did one song. Then, of course, my Seagull guitar failed to work through the sound system – the only place it has worked out of the three open mics I’ve done in Copenhagen so far is at the first, and best of them: CPH Listening Room. I wonder if there is a reason for that!
First at Tjili Pop in Copenhagen

Anyway, the Tjili Pop bar is otherwise an absolutely fabulous room, cramped, cool, hippie-like, and broken up into different sectors, so if you want to talk you can go to another room, away from the music room. Not that many people did!

I did managed to fill my time waiting with three beers – I really only wanted one beer and three songs, but … – and a fish and chips meal that was not bad at all.
Fourth at Tjili in cph

The place was crammed with people, and by the time I got behind the mic and belted out Mad World – I think I was the only person to sing a cover song all night, but I did that as a rebellious statement (!) – I was really not happy, and really ready to take full advantage of the pulpit and go crazy. All the alcohol helped too….

It had otherwise been a great day at the CPH:DOX film festival. In the morning I had attended a conference about the question of whether or not to serialize a documentary film – i.e., turn it into several films – with the highly experienced and interesting Thom Powers, who selects the films for several important film festivals among many other things.
Another at the Tjili open mic

I also did an interview with the man who selects the films and music for the CPH:DOX festival, Adam Thorsmark. I will be posting that interview in the form of a podcast very soon in a separate post….

Anyway, despite my frustration with the crazy Tjili joint, I have now done three open mics in Copenhagen, and there are plenty more available. So ultimately, I am absolutely delighted with what this city has to offer in the way of open mics, and I never expected so much.

Two Films and a Second Open Mic – Copenhagen’s Mojo’s Workin’

March 22, 2017
bradspurgeon

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN – It was tight timing, but it was a reflection of just about everything else in this tightly organized festival and my trip to attend CPH:DOX and play at open mics: I had a film at 7 p.m., followed by a film at 9 p.m. followed by an open mic at 11 p.m. And despite the rain, hail, snow, freezing weather and wind, I managed to achieve all three things. (I exaggerate only slightly on the cold, horrible, depressing Copenhagen weather.) The most fun in all that? Maybe all three, the totality. From the “Sour Grapes” documentary about a wine fraud, to the snippets of a cameraperson’s filming life in the film called “Cameraperson” to the open mic at Mojo with more Copenhagen singer songwriters, it was all about as good as it gets….

The wine film was a delight, as I have a very strong interest in wine as well as in wine frauds, as one of my very first unsold novels, “Bacchanalia,” dealt with an imaginary wine fraud story in the 1980s, and was inspired by the true-to-life wine fraud over fake bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. (I posted my many-times-rejected article on that very story of the Thomas Jefferson wines on my blog a few years ago.) This film is a similar, but actually much wilder story of a young Indonesian who ingratiates himself to the wine world in the U.S. in the 2000s and ends up selling 10s of millions of dollars of fake wine to collectors before being caught and put in prison. A lively story, and one of the most amazing aspects is how his victims fail to believe it is really possible that this guy did this, even once it has been made crystal clear by the discovery by federal agents of all the evidence they needed in the man’s home.
Cameraperson trailer

From that film I rushed over to another cinema – both cinemas and the open mic bar were close walking distance to my hotel – and attended the film “Cameraperson,” which is a series of outtakes and other moments from documentary films and reportages that Kirsten Johnson, a filmmaker and cinematographer, put together over her career. It includes some sad, touching moments with her mother during her final period with Alzheimer’s Disease. Johnson asks us to see the film as her version of a memoir. It is full of some very touching and strange moments of film – as for instance when she is filming a woman in the throes of anger against her mother’s suicide, when suddenly a huge mass of snow comes sliding off the room of her home outside the window, as if the mother was trying to communicate from the other side….

“Cameraperson” lasted longer than I had expected, and so I did not get out of the cinema until 22:49, and while I had planned to run back to the hotel, grab my guitar and return to the open mic, I was now faced with the reality that I would arrive at the open mic after 23:00 if I did that, and I had been told that it started at around 23:00. It took place in a blues bar called Mojo, and while it may be famous as a blues bar, the Monday night event is a singer songwriter open mic. So I was really looking forward to doing it, and decided I had better go first, without my guitar.

Besides, it was yet another night of rain in Copenhagen, where it has rained every day I have been here. Moreover, the rain was at its worst – as far as I could see – at that moment. So I walked over to Mojo, walked into this nice, warm, mainly wooden, cowboy-saloon-like joint, with a beautiful little stage across from the front door, and I found that the open mic had not yet begun.
Sour Grapes trailer

I eventually met the MC, the organizer of the open mic, Kira Martini, and she told me that it would run from shortly after 23:00 until about 1 a.m. So I had plenty of time to return to my hotel to take my guitar. I could also use hers, she said. But since it was a nylon-string guitar, I chose to return to the hotel. I immediately regretted that decision when I walked into the hail of gale-force winds and finally arrived at my hotel with soaking wet feet and jeans. But somehow I felt great that I would have the security of my own guitar.
another at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

The open mic, when I returned, was in full swing. It had a similar vibe to it to the CPH Listening Room open mic of the night before in that the audience, for the most part, was there to listen, and the performers performed only their own songs. And most of the songs were fairly quiet, personal, singer songwriter songs – as opposed to anything rockin’. The only person who decided to do a cover song was Kira, who at the request of a client, sang a famous Brazilian song, as the last one of the night (I think). It was a beautiful moment even so – and I still think there is a place for doing cover songs, even in a singer songwriter night. (Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and a few others would no doubt have thought so too!)
first at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

Anyway, I was, in the end, ecstatic about having achieved all of my goals in that very short period of time available. What an amazing week so far, at the halfway point of this visit to Copenhagen for me. Oh, the only problem was that after all the effort of going back to my hotel to take my guitar, no sooner did I finish doing my presentation of the first song than my guitar – which had worked on the soundcheck – suddenly decided to pull a temper tantrum and not speak through the pickup. We had to mic the guitar separately. But in the end, I think it sounded better that way!
Kira at Mojo

Accidental Spectator Discovers Why; Two Important Films on Hate at CPH:DOX (and Tindersticks vs. Minute Bodies)

March 21, 2017
bradspurgeon

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

COPENHAGEN – Somehow, I ended up in the wrong film at the CPH:DOX festival. I did not choose this film and it was not the film I came to see, it was not the film written on my ticket, although it was the right cinema, and the right auditorium. But then, immediately, as the film began in its strange manner, I decided that it could be a very interesting exercise to watch a documentary that I did not choose to see. And by the time it was over – even before that – I realized that it was a fabulously synchronistic thing to have had happen. The night before, Sunday night, I had seen another film that in fact fit in perfectly with this film. So I realized I had something to write about these two otherwise completely different films: They both deal with some of the biggest problems of our day – but in completely different ways – namely: Ideology, intolerance, hate, lack of love, rejection of people who are different from us, and above all, ignorance.

While I came to Copenhagen mainly to watch the music documentaries in the Sound & Vision festival-within-the-festival I was going to at least see some of the non-music films. Sunday night’s film was the first of those that I attended, the very powerful “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and based on an incomplete book, “Remember This House,” by James Baldwin about his relationships with his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The other film, where I found myself by accident, was “The Devil’s Trap,” about a man who grew up in a Christian cult that rejects anything to do with the world outside the cult. The film is by the Canadian Mitchell Stafiej, and it follows 25-year-old Lane, who found the strength to reject the church of his parents, brother and sisters, only to find that he had been permanently rejected by his family.

I Am Not Your Negro trailer

In each film, we find these problems of hate for anyone who is different, intolerance over the differences, and above all fear. Fear of the consequences of living with people of different beliefs, races, colors, creeds. Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” I was thinking about how the film answered for me my questions about the current situation in the United States. How could there be so much hate in this country now with Donald Trump’s (mostly white) voters asking for an America that closes out the rest of the world, refuses to accept diversity and refuses to acknowledge that human beings, in order to survive, need a moral standard that cannot include lies and hate?

Watching the “Baldwin-narrated” – an actor speaks Baldwin’s text, and the film tells the story through historic footage – of the history of black people in America answers that question of “how” can things be like this now. Because many of the white American people – not all of them – have been this way through most of their history. As is said at one point in the film, the history of America is the history of black people in America, and you can use the way black people are being treated as a barometer for the health of the whole country.

It’s a stunning, powerful film. James Baldwin was more than a front-row observer, more than a witness of that history of the second half of the 20th century. He was friends with these three prime voices in the battle for black peoples’ rights – or as King said, “duties” – and he himself, as the film shows, made some very clear and powerful statements.

I have always felt close to Baldwin as an expat writer who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to the United States in the 1960s because he missed the people, then spent the decade there in the height of the civil rights battle, before moving back to France in 1970, and settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987 at age 63 from stomach cancer.

Baldwin had never wanted to be taken as a “black writer” first, which is one of the reasons he moved to France – to write from outside the context of his situation in life in the U.S. During his battles in the civil rights movement, he spoke about how he was raised on the same white culture as his white countrymen and women were raised on, and only once he hit a certain age – still as a child – was he stunned to realize that he was in fact considered by the white people in the same role as the Indians were that John Wayne was killing in the films he grew up watching. He, suddenly realized in his innocence, that he was a target.

The film shows not just the past, but it shows how the problems still exist today, with an appearance or two of Trump’s face and words, and there are references to Black Lives Matter, and other current events and murdered black people.

I left the cinema feeling I understood the current situation with Trump much better – because it has so long been woven into the American psyche.

And then the accidental part of this story with The Devil’s Trap

But the next day, Monday, I ended up by accident in this film about Lane and his family’s devotion to the cult of the Exclusive Brethren. To quote from Wikipedia, this cult is “a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.”

Lane and his family, it turns out, are Canadians. They attended the church in Montreal, where Lane grew up controlled by the doctrines of this church, through his parents’ application of the codes on the family. The film, in fact, takes us across the border to various cities in the U.S. as well, including Washington D.C., where his family now lives.

The Devil’s Trap trailer


I am a Canadian, born and raised, and as I heard Lane speak, I felt I heard my friends and family – eh? So my thoughts about “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the U.S.-specific hate and intolerance came into a different perspective.

Lane tells the story of how he grew up indoctrinated by the principles of the cult through his parents in such a strict way that he felt like a complete outsider in Canadian society. (Although he never used such a national distinction.) He could not watch films, had no right to listen to music CDs, if he swore his father would wash his mouth out with laundry detergent. And when he dared decide to leave the church, his family and eventually join the military, his family not only disowned him, but refused to speak to him. No one paid much attention when he told them that he had been raped at age 13 by a church member at the church.

His parents never want to see him again. First, though, so convinced were they that there was something wrong with Lane, that they took him to the Mayo Clinic for several days of physical and mental examinations. The overseeing doctor at this respected clinic told him after all the tests that he was an entirely healthy teenager, both physically and mentally and he should not let anyone tell him otherwise. That helped him realize that despite hearing that he was mentally ill from his family for years, his inclinations that there was a problem rather with his upbringing were right.

He broke away. But the film shows how he makes a final effort to try to see and meet, and share the life he deserves with his family, travelling to Washington to see them. It is only in this culminating scene that I became entirely convinced myself that Lane was not exaggerating, or perhaps even lying, about the extreme nature of the treatment by his family. We learn through a concealed recording he made of his meeting with his brother – whom he had not seen in years – that his parents would not come and meet him, that it would be too difficult for them to take emotionally. These parents were, however, dying, feeling completely destroyed, by the departure and betrayal against the church and its beliefs, their beliefs, of their son.

In short, their cult religion, their beliefs, were more important than their love for their child. Oh, no, sorry, Lane they do love. But they would only welcome him back home and come to see him, make him a member of the family again if he accepted the dictates of the cult. Only if he sacrificed everything to the cult as they did would they accept that he was worth loving and associating with. Otherwise, he was to be shunned, closed out, shut up, disowned, considered dead.

One difference between the treatment of Lane and the treatment of the blacks in racist America is that at least it would appear that the members of the cult do not intend to actually physically kill those who are different from them, as is the case through the history of violence and hate against the blacks in America. There is, of course, the mental torture his family inflict from their intolerance and ignorance and hateful actions – but at least there is no murder, in this case.

But for me, these two films sum up the depths to which humanity appears to be going at the moment with the extremism that Trump represents. One of the most interesting elements for me, also, is that these people in the cult who hate and refuse to live with those who are different than them, including their own family members, they are from an affluent middle class. We are not talking about physical poverty here – only mental poverty. Most of Trump’s voters, while perhaps being from a lower-income part of the population, are not exactly starving and dying from exposure either. We are, in both cases, talking about people whose basic needs have been met, and now they are free to hate through extreme ideologies. Why is it that with the most common challenge facing humanity being the very survival and feeding and housing of the 6 or 7 billion of us all, we have to try to destroy one another based on ideologies and beliefs? Could fear and cowardice be the answer to that?

Anyway, this has to be one of the most run-on posts I’ve ever done, and I’d probably do much better to stick to writing about the music films at CPH:DOX. But I was affected by both of these films.

And then there was Tindersticks vs. the amoeba

To finish on a lighter note, I also attended briefly the multimedia event of the weekend, the concert by the group Tindersticks, playing at the festival headquarters while overhead some strange video showed of sped-up-motion nature shots of plants and amoeba etc., in Minute Bodies. Don’t bother asking me what it all meant. Check out my video of a minute or so of that concert, if you want to understand. Then get back to me on your theories….

Tindersticks at CPH:DOX

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=ceZb4f0R7Uk

A Couple of Kunst (?!) in a Bunch of Kunst – A Sleaford Mods Doc

March 19, 2017
bradspurgeon

Sleaford Mods

Sleaford Mods

COPENHAGEN – Rather than trying to look hip, cool and with it, I will admit here that before I stepped into the world premiere of Christine Franz’s film at the Empire Bio at the CPH:DOX festival last night I had no idea who the Sleaford Mods were. Then, as the film began, I quickly concluded that they were just a couple of kunst. As the film rolled on, the couple of kunst reminded me less of Derek and Clive, and more and more of the reason Britain voted for Brexit. And more and more, I grew to feel sympathetic and warm to the two stars of Bunch of Kunst, coming out feeling finally that I may not – as Iggy Pop says toward the end of the film – understand much of what they are saying (thanks to that strong British accent) but I can understand the reason they exist. And though I always thought the Brexit vote was an illness, I can now understand a little better through this film the nature of that illness.

Having said that, I don’t think the word Brexit was mentioned a single time in the film. And in a talk in the cinema at CPH:DOX after the film, Franz said she specifically did not want to make an overt political statement in the film. It turns out there has already been another documentary about the Sleaford Mods, called Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, and that one was very political. So no doubt Franz wanted to avoid what had already been done.

So who the fowk are the Sleaford Mods anyway??? Well, a couple of guys who had musical ambitions, one of whom played in several bands without success, the other of whom was a DJ doing his own thing. They met one night at a show, and the guy who speaks the rap and writes the lyrics, Jason Williamson, got together with the man who does the DJ thing, Andrew Fearn, and they began to do some shows in bars, raging against the machine that is working class life in middle England. At their home in Nottingham, they decided to set up a little studio and record some albums.
Bunch of Kunst Sleaford Mods trailer

This was in the late 2000s, and they stuck things out in bars for years, through failed album after failed album. Eventually, the chicken-factory worker – Williamson – (well, seems that job lasted six weeks) and the unemployed man, Fearn, met up with a guy who had a solid job, driving a bus for 14 years, and he became a fan and had a vision. These two modern day punk rappers, he thought, could get their act together and do something relevant and cool.

To draw the story short, they ended up doing bigger and bigger venues, finally playing in Glastonbury, and then, as the film shows, ultimately signed a record deal with the legendary Rough Trade label. (There is a shot at one moment that shows the first Rough Trade album, Métal Urbain, a French punk band of perhaps equally unlikely people in the 1970s, famous for a song called “Creve Salope,” (“Die Bitch” among others.) And, as I mentioned, the Sleaford Mods also ended up garnering the attention of Iggy Pop and many others.
Sleaford Mods video

The film was shot over two crucial years, from 2014 to 2016, and takes us from their lives in the pub performances to Glastonbury to the signing at Rough Trade.

What made these performers a success is clear: The nasty, angry, bad, expletive-full lyrics that speak the anger of the English working class in a language and emotion that they understand. “They speak for me,” says one of the gig-goers, a man who also appears to be in his 40s, like the two members of the “band.” But the language is so strongly couched in English argot that it is, as I said, nearly incomprehensible to an outsider – and that is also one of the main factors that makes it popular to its tribe.

And yet this deep-rooted cultural whatever did not stop the duo from gaining at first a slightly greater following in Germany before they developed one in England! (Which partly answers for the German director – although Franz also pointed out that she had attended Birmingham University, and so was steeped in a little bit of this culture herself.) We are also taken on a trip to see the German fans celebrate and react to the Sleaford Mods, and to sing along with their lyrics – which was as surprising to the Sleaford Mods as it was to anyone.

They are now about to embark on a visit to perform in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how they are received. While my first impressions were entirely softened by my “getting to know” these guys through the film, I still have to add that had I seen them in an open mic somewhere, anywhere, around the world, even in middle England, I am sure that I would have still had the impression that they were just a couple of kunst. Had I seen them in front of one of their raging audiences in England, on the other hand, I might have wondered what world I had stepped into … just the way I did when I saw my first ever performance by a punk band, the Viletones, in Toronto in early 1977. In fact, the ambience was very, very similar…and as I write these words, I realize it was exactly 40 years ago that I had that strange experience of seeing the Viletones in the Colonial Underground, and wrote about it the moment I returned home, as I did last night this post….

So if you want an experience like seeing the first punk bands in the 1970s, take a look at this film.

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