Why is it we appreciate the artistes that we do? The popstrels, the boppers, the groovers, and the associated proponents of vaudevillian chart fodder that regularly clog up our hipster turntables?
Perhaps we admire their tailoring above all else. The sparkly sheen of their eye shadow, or how they’re kind to animals. Maybe – just maybe – it’s because the records they’re responsible for implicitly work on manifold levels (although I wouldn’t know for sure; I’m just the looks of this outfit – you’re supposed to bring the brains).
Whatever shape this allure comes in (and its provenance is pretty static across all forms of artful entertainment), I’m pretty sure that any longevity is all down to maintaining the illusion. I want my rock stars neon-lit, unobtainable, draped in otherworldliness – not caught washing the dishes or moaning about the price of dried figs in the supermarket. Which is perhaps why its pays to be weary of the rock documentary – especially if furnished with willing participation or endorsement. Played too straight and any bubble of magic can be popped by a damnation of peeking behind the curtains (see: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields for how to make the special feel mundane).
Conversely, pitching the documentary toward the other extreme – the hammy fantasia of the “fly-on-the-wall” scenes in Shut Up And Play The Hits comes to mind, in which James Murphy (by all accounts a lovely chap in real life) is portrayed by James Murphy acting like a cock – feels gratuitous, and far too comic book to slot easily into any musical continuum.
And then there’s Art Will Save The World, Niall McCann’s 2012 playful, cinematic portrait of musician/artist/author/professional contrarian Luke Haines. It’s a film of peculiar strengths, hinged upon understanding Haines as construct (as opposed to Haines the dishwater, or Haines the New York ingrate dicking about his minimalist apartment). There’s an emphasis upon interplay – that between musical, literary and screen-driven narratives – and it’s a tactic that promotes a bond between the unfolding story and the nod-and-a-wink aesthetic that underpins the persona Haines makes available for public consumption.
I’m guessing that if you’ve made it this far into these words, you’ll be familiar with both Bad Vibes and Post Everything, Haines’ twin works of semi-autobiographical, book-form howling. These are reference points Art Will Save… shares, the broad chronology of the film representing perhaps a Bildungsroman arc; The Auteurs’ initial success, The Auteurs’ slo-mo disintegration, and the subsequent idiosyncratic career trajectory by way of A), pre-millennial tension, and B), a very twenty-first century form of iconoclasm.
And to the extent that the documentary is of the conventional kind: cue the talking heads, the album-by-album post-mortem, and a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place as a single disc compilation package of his various musical guises (even if Passionoia, Black Box Recorder’s under-rated final album, is overlooked for this exercise).
Yet the linear only takes us so far; a facet McCann instinctively understands. The Haines of this film is both familiar and illusory, impish, his story backlit by knowing winks, literary references, comedic asides, abstract camera vignettes – perhaps, even, a suggestion of surreal inclination filtered through a film-maker’s craft.
‘I’m starting to get pissed off with this. People like to think they know you, but they don’t have a clue,’ opines the narrator, some chancer by the name of Luke Haines – perhaps less a peek of the real Haines as a sly dig at the talking heads preceding the scene.
‘Art is not for the people. What I do is not aimed at the man in the street – fuck him,’ announces the primary interviewee, a certain Mr Luke Haines, and the glint in his eye as he says it almost bounces off the screen.
That’s just two examples of the film’s tongue-in-cheek execution – there are are many more that I won’t mention here, lest it ruins the impact if you’re yet to see. But it’s these little moments that help to make the movie – binding it together in interesting patterns, whether you’re a fan of the protagonist or not.
And for the devotees, Art Will Save… reflects the subject matter’s cultural motifs in waves. Little nuggets for the initiated, perhaps. From The Auteurs and Baader Meinhof through to BBR and the solo work, the themes within are both pronounced and tackled from such a slanted vantage that you’d be forgiven – on first listen at least – for missing them. The caustic celebration of home counties suburbia. The dark reflections of tawdry showbiz. The 1970’s. Shit seaside resorts. All there – in the records, in his books, and (now) in film; for somebody else’s piece of work to chime so closely is a credit to the skill behind the documentary’s construction.
Art Will Save The World isn’t perfect. It’s too short, for one thing, clocking in at only 70 minutes. Many of the interviewees not called Luke Haines or Jarvis Cocker grow a little taxing – perhaps a pity that other of his collaborators over the years weren’t made available – whilst mentions of the word Britpop are too common for my liking. But despite these (negligible) faults, it remains one of the finest examples of its type I’ve watched for a long time, maintaining the popstrel/bopper magic whilst keeping the wry nicely ratcheted up.
And the sad thing? Art Will Save The World is currently is without a commercial release, either theatrically or via whatever format it is that you access your home-bound audio/visual subsistence. To date it’s only been exhibited at selected film festivals, or (as I had to do), chanced upon in the type of darkened room where men in colonial summer suits talk Luke Haines in lowered tones. Hopefully this will all change shortly.
The trailer’s a grand tease, mind.