Soul Boys of the Western World: SXSW Review
Following the premiere of George Hencken's archival documentary charting the evolution of Spandau Ballet, the '80s Brit band is set to perform its first U.S. gig in 28 years at SXSW.
Spawned out of London nightclubs like Billy's and the Blitz in the wake of punk, the New Romantics exploded briefly but intensely onto the global pop and fashion scene at the start of the 1980s. Serious clubbers in those days were coiffed in fabulous mullets and extravagant quiffs, wearing swashbuckling pirate chic, Robin Hood tunics, urban nomad getups, kilts, jackboots and jodhpurs. Good times. If that description stirs memories, chances are you danced to Spandau Ballet, the five working-class Islington lads who transformed themselves into jet-setting neo-dandy superstars and spent the next decade conquering the world as they evolved from synthpop through white funk to blue-eyed soul and slick balladry, cresting with the karaoke evergreen, "True."
The first film directed by documentary producer George Hencken, Soul Boys of the Western World is a detailed account of that rollercoaster ride for the band led by Tony Hadley and Gary Kemp, which fizzled with an acrimonious split but found a consolatory ending almost 20 years later in 2009, when Spandau Ballet reformed for a successful series of British concerts.
That narrative trajectory is mapped out via a banquet of choice footage, particularly from the early years. But Hencken's archive-only approach is too depersonalized to get close to its subjects; even the conflict and resolution are related like bullet points in a Wikipedia entry. And while the film carries no writer credit, the accompanying voiceover commentary from all five band-members feels canned, short on off-the-cuff spontaneity and hindsight perspective.
Still, even if it has not much more depth than a VH1 Behind the Music special, the doc holds ample pleasures for '80s cultists. Among them is watching the boys groove through "To Cut a Long Story Short" in their 1980 showcase gig aboard the HMS Belfast; sunbathe on the beach in St. Tropez or by the pool in the Bahamas; flounce around the snowy Lake District like Bedouin warlords (with dwarfs) in the 1981 "Musclebound" music video; arrive at Wembley Stadium by chopper for Live Aid; or face off against Duran Duran (and lose) in a battle of the haircut bands on the BBC's Pop Quiz.
The film sets the scene for the birth of Spandau, with 1960s footage and home movies from their North London childhoods during an era when postwar Brits had big dreams for their kids. Drummer John Keeble narrows his own goals to three options: "Keep wicket for England, play for Arsenal or play drums in a rock band." He joined schoolmates Steve Norman, Kemp and Hadley in early incarnations of the group. Their friend Steve Dagger took on management duties while Kemp's younger brother Martin Kemp eventually stepped in as bass player to complete the lineup.
Hencken supplies plenty of late '70s context: Margaret Thatcher came into power and clashed with trade unions, prompting nationwide strikes in that "Winter of Discontent." But unlike punk, no case is made here that the fledgling New Romantic wave was in any way political. It was shaped less by social concerns than by the poseur costume-ball spirit that pervaded Blitz, the legendary Covent Garden club run by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan (whose own group, Visage, was on the synthpop New Romantic vanguard), A collision of glamrock, punk and soul, the sound drew from acts like David Bowie and Roxy Music as building blocks, while mixing in European electronica like Kraftwerk.
The film leaves no doubt that Spandau Ballet (a name music journalist Robert Elms reportedly saw scrawled on a Berlin bathroom wall) were at the center of this pop-cultural ferment, particularly in their connection to the Blitz crowd. Early television exposure helped them secure a lucrative record deal, and the members say their first hits opened the door to intense competition from bands like Soft Cell, Culture Club, Human League, and their biggest rivals, Duran Duran.
However, the sweeping nature of these claims is a weak point in Hencken's documentary, given that unmentioned artists like Gary Numan and groups like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Ultravox, ABC and Heaven 17 were no less influential than Spandau in defining signature early-'80s post-punk sounds. Appointing the band as sole spokesmen skews the assessment, with selective memory perhaps encouraging them to take more single-handed credit than is due for a collective music/fashion/video explosion. A key point the doc ignores is that their success, like Duran Duran's, probably had less to do with being individualistic pioneers than with having a finger on the mainstream pulse.
The friction and fatigue that led to the band dissolving in 1990 also are covered only in vague terms. There's passing talk of "living on champagne, cocaine and adrenaline" at the height of their popularity; of anxiety that Hadley's wedding would hurt their image; of friendships eroded by too much hard partying together on the road; and of a loss of focus when the Kemps began exploring acting roles, notably playing the eponymous twin London underworld figures in the 1990 film The Krays. But Hencken and editor Chris Duveen only partly succeed in shaping this decline into a sturdy narrative. That lessens the impact both of the bitter 1999 lawsuit over royalties and of the reunion that followed a decade later.
If footage of the reformed Spandau tearing through "Gold" as the encore to their set at the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival lacks the punch of a real emotional climax, that might partly be because Hadley in his dapper suit looks disconcertingly like Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. More importantly, Hencken glosses over the healing of the divided band's royalty dispute, taking her cue from Gary Kemp ("A private matter, I think"), who had solo songwriting credit on their hits.
Too many music docs overload on talking heads instead of providing immersion into the time and the sounds being chronicled. Soul Boys of the Western World can't be accused of that. But instead of endless scripted voiceovers reiterating generic points like, "This was it. I really felt like a rock star," some candid face time on camera might have allowed more intimate access to Spandau Ballet's history.
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)
With: Tony Hadley, Gary Kemp, Steve Norman, John Keeble, Martin Kemp, Steve Dagger
Production company: Wellingmax
Director: George Hencken
Producers: Scott Millaney, Steve Dagger
Archive producer: Kate Griffiths
Editor: Chris Duveen
No rating, 102 minutes