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When you have Michael Caine on board as the face and primary voice of your documentary collage of the pop-cultural explosion of London in the 1960s, plus entrepreneurial mogul Simon Fuller as lead producer, you get great access — to talent, to music, to a dizzying trove of fabulous photographic and filmed archival material. But all that appears to have flummoxed rather than helped director David Batty and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais in making the necessary choices to conquer their wealth of material and mold it into a satisfying shape.
For anyone interested in the movies, music, fashion and art of the period, My Generation will contain much that’s entertaining. Who doesn’t love hearing smoky-voiced Marianne Faithfull recall what “naughty boys” Mick and the lads were back then? Or seeing an early Who performance on a sweaty stage? Or watching stunner Jean Shrimpton electrify a photo shoot? But the longer the doc goes on, the more it sacrifices depth for frenetic overload, with too little in the way of insightful analysis to shed fresh perspective on the Swinging London years.
The most interesting parts of the film are its observations — led by Caine, a Cockney who helped expand the mold for leading men on British screens — about the class revolution.
In awkward present-day interview segments shot at a variety of locations (at one point he’s seen tooling around in a vintage Aston Martin), Caine recalls his parents’ generation always banging on about “the good old days.” But he questions how good those days really were, with the Depression, unemployment, the Blitz and rationing that continued after the War. Working-class Brits remained largely invisible in an entertainment culture still dominated by toffs with plummy accents. As Caine remembers it, there was a lot of talk at school about looking up to one’s “betters.”
Along with contemporaries like photographer David Bailey, rocker Roger Daltrey and supermodel Twiggy, Caine shifted the needle by proving that Brits from humble origins (his mother was a “charlady,” his dad a fish-market porter), and without aristocratic accents, could achieve stardom and wield massive cultural influence. Nowhere was this truer than with the Beatles.
Caine shares an anecdote about his casting as a British military officer in 1964’s Zulu, a lucky break that came about because the American director had no understanding of the class divide that would have excluded the actor from consideration by an English director. Choice clips of Caine’s films from the ‘60s keep popping up, with special attention given to Alfie as a breakthrough for what Paul McCartney refers to as “ordinary lads.”
This sense of cocky youths standing up to the establishment stiffs and for the first time taking hold of their futures is the most concrete theme developed in Batty’s film, which has the feel of a work-in-progress.
It’s divided into three parts, titled Something in the Air, I Feel Free and All Was Not as It Seemed. And there’s a more or less corresponding narrative arc of burgeoning rebellion, hedonistic liberation (Miniskirts! The pill! Guitar-smashing! Acid trips!) and the comedown after the high. But too often, the choice of material becomes random and repetitive, rarely touching on a point for long enough to give it much weight. Editor Ben Hilton cuts the thing like it’s a Baz Luhrmann film.
It’s a kick to see footage of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones larking about together in Richmond. And that sense of a cauldron of young, beautiful, talented people, many of whom knew one another, danced at the same clubs and shopped at the same stores (Biba and Mary Quant’s Bazaar being the most famous of them), does transport us back to a time of creative ferment. But that point gets made over and over with too little variation.
Noted British sitcom writing partners Clement and Le Frenais seem to find it endlessly amusing to punctuate their account of the permissive spirit of the decade with the disapproving voices of an older generation, clutching their pearls over moral decline. This gets very tiresome. And though there’s talk of the rejection of a culture of bombs and guns in the Vietnam years, shifts in race relations or gay rights are largely ignored in this very white, heterosexual film. Even the sexual revolution is reduced to a fashion statement.
Another weakness that emerges, sad to say, is the overuse of Caine, who is funny and charming as ever, but too often saddled by the writers with stiff, cliché-ridden narration. Phrases like, “We’d pushed for change, and now change was pushing us back,” for instance. Had this been a biographical portrait, the choice to keep returning to Caine and his films would have made more sense. But as his connection to the developments being chronicled becomes more peripheral, the faintest whiff of vanity-project imbalance starts to creep in. The rest of the starry lineup of interviewees are heard from but seen only in archival film.
Still, Bailey’s iconic portraits of Caine suggest he might have been single-handedly responsible for making chunky geek glasses eternally cool, an achievement worth honoring.
Production company: XIX Entertainment
Narrator: Michael Caine
With: David Bailey, Michael Caine, Joan Collins, Roger Daltrey, Dudley Edwards, Marianne Faithfull, Barbara Hulanicki, Lulu, Paul McCartney, Terry O’Neill, David Puttnam, Mary Quant, Mim Scala, Sandie Shaw, Penelope Tree, Twiggy
Director: David Batty
Screenwriters: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Producers: Simon Fuller, Michael Caine, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Executive producer: James Clayton
Directors of photography: Ben Hodgson
Production designer: Aurelie Taillefer
Editor: Ben Hilton
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: IM Global
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