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Breaking Through the Inertia with The Inertia Variations – a Look at the Creative Process through Matt Johnson, of The The

March 25, 2017
bradspurgeon

The Inertia Variations

The Inertia Variations

COPENHAGEN – For the 15 years prior to the film “The Inertia Variations,” musician Matt Johnson, the lead guy in the British 1980s-90s band, “The The,” had not performed any music, had not finished writing any songs – although he had started a lot of them – and for many years had even ceased to touch his guitars at all. That sounds like a lot of inertia. His absence from the music scene has resulted in his Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the reclusive” Matt Johnson.† But in this new film, made by his ex-wife, Johanna St. Michaels, – which had its international premiere at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen Thursday night – while we see that he is certainly something of a loner, not only has he been occupied with many other projects – photography, writing those unfinished songs, working on a book – but above all, creating a radio station in his home in London that broadcasts the old-fashioned way – with an antenna – to try to communicate with and inform people about politics in a way that they are not exposed to in the mainstream media. So how reclusive can that be? And for that matter, how much inertia could it all entail?

In fact, questions of inertia are woven throughout the film, with much existential questioning in the many different perceptions of himself both by others and from within himself about who he really is and what he really wants to do in life, and they make up the main, driving thrust behind this film. It remains interesting from beginning to the end through what amounts to raising such universal questions about the creative process and the question of identity that affect us all.

The film centers around a 12-hour nonstop, live radio show from his home station – Radio Cineola – during the British election, and clearly, for Johnson this aspect of his life is the most important thing at the moment. Obviously, for fans of The The, and for his former – and to a degree – his current, wife, there is the lingering question: “When will you make more music?!” Part of Johnson himself clearly wants to create more music too. The film shows that there is even an aching part of him that has been wanting to continue to create and play new songs for a while now. But he can never finish anything, and part of him, he says, is quite lazy. Others say it too. And in some very bizarre ways, we see codes he creates in his life to make it simpler that could also be considered a form of laziness: He shows off, and explains, that he always wears the same type of pants and shirt, a whole series of which he has had tailor-made for him to avoid having to make a choice on what clothes to wear (this reminded me of Steve Jobs, by the way). In fact, this “lazy” part of his personality echoed in my mind the comical Oblomov character from Russian literature.

But what the film ends up making very clear, and what really becomes its focus, is the horrendous battle that Johnson appears to be undergoing with what a fiction writer would call “writer’s block.” And there is a touch of what he himself wonders about in a conversation with his father: A fear of both success and a fear of failure. Given that The The was a successful band with music that has profoundly affected generations of fans – even if it is far from being a household name, and the songs themselves never broke into the popular global consciousness – Johnson has a reputation to live up to if he is to “replicate” the kind of success he had in the first couple of decades of the band, before his split from music.

The Inertia Variations trailer

Part of him is happy living the clearly comfortable life he has. He has all the material needs anyone could want, he has lots of recording and playing equipment in his home; he has the radio station (with the science-fiction-like antenna that he mounted on the roof of his building); he apparently owns the whole building, and he is constantly fighting against developers who want to buy it to put up more high-rises – referring to himself as a conservationist. He is also a bit of a landlord, renting out parts of the building – it seems. He still has projects involved with the rights to The The. This is a full, and to most people in our world, enviable life.

So for me, the film is, above all, the story not only of a man’s creative process, but also of the difference between his own creative needs and expectations of himself, as opposed to the expectations that others have of him. That takes us back to the idea that he is a recluse just because he is no longer making music.

But, I feel, the key to understanding him lies in the book-ends of important deaths in his family: The death of his brother, Eugene at age 24 in 1989 he said changed his view of life, and affected him profoundly. It seems to have affected the momentum of the band, The The. And 10 years later, his mother, heartbroken with Eugene’s death, died. That coincides with the final The The album, NakedSelf, in 2000.

Then, while the film was being made, another of his brothers died – in January 2016 – and this was Andrew, the artist who did some album covers for The The and other bands. Matt was actually working on a book with Andrew, and is clearly shattered. It is this death that drives Matt Johnson to actually, and finally, once again, finish a song. A song for Andrew. The film ends in a deluge of emotion as Johnson finally performs the song, at his home in front of people, in front of the cameras, on his radio, in what was his first public performance in 15 years. And it is shocking just how good the song is, and how his voice, despite years without use, remains fabulous.

It also turns out that the song, called, “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – which features the guitar work of Johnny Marr, who played with him often in the past – will be released as a single on April 22. So could it be that Matt Johnson finally managed to write a song simply because the song had to be written?  Could it be that the need to write a song for his brother overshadowed any need he had to match his own high achievements of the past that he feared not being able to live up to?  That only one thing mattered, and that was to express himself for Andrew, through a song – no matter the quality?

That, in any case, is the way that I read it. Whatever the reason, whatever the story behind the motivations and workings of his mind, this beautiful and intimate film, which uses fictional film techniques, is a tender, thought-provoking tale from the beginning to the end. The Inertia Variations is also beautifully filmed, and has a wonderful soundtrack – by The The – a real treasure, so thank goodness Johanna and Matt have managed to remain friends and he allowed her to make this film that had been on her mind for many years.

Thanks goodness also that Matt – as he said in the talk after the film – just left the concept of the film up to her rather than doing what he would have liked to do, which was to really promote his passion of the moment by putting in more about the political messages he is trying to convey with his radio station….

UPDATE, 26 March 2017: Here is a podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels. I have kept the 15 minutes in the Q&A (which I recorded with my Zoom recorder sitting on my lap), but I have cut out the further 20 minutes of talk where the public asks questions.

UPDATE, 27 March 2017: Here is a second part to the podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels with the questions from the audience. I had decided not to put up this portion of the Q&A – which is just as rich as the first part – but after a request from a reader/listener, I decided to put it up as well:

Actually, it is the Wikipedia page for the band, The The, that refers to him as “the reclusive Johnson”….

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