'Beautiful Noise': Sheffield Review

Love letter to groundbreaking guitar manglers.

This fan-friendly documentary revisits an influential avant-rock movement spearheaded by My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Paying tribute to a generation of alternative rock bands that blossomed in late 1980s Britain, Beautiful Noise is a fannish inquisition into a musical subculture that continues to enjoy a huge cult following. The project had a long and troubled gestation, with a limited budget that is often evident on screen. But the presence of some superstar interviewees combined with the multigenerational audience for this evergreen music should ensure healthy niche interest, most likely on small-screen formats. Following its U.K. premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this month, the film next screens at Don’t Knock the Rock festival in L.A. in July.

The star subjects of Beautiful Noise are ear-bending avant-rock icons My Bloody Valentine, shimmering art-pop innovators Cocteau Twins and confrontational noise punks The Jesus and Mary Chain. The American producer-director duo Sarah Ogletree and Eric Green interview members of all three bands, including the reclusive Kevin Shields and Jim Reid, plus a wide extended family of their musical contemporaries: Ride, Pale Saints, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Lush, Curve, Swervedriver, Loop, Medicine, AR Kane and Seefeel.

In truth, most of these artists had little in common besides their shared love of heavily processed guitar effects, submerged vocals and introverted performance style. Most never enjoyed mainstream success but the noise they created between them had a lasting impact, inspiring other musicians to take their sound to greater commercial heights, especially in the US. Green and Ogletree score a coup here by securing interviews with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips and Robert Smith of The Cure, all avowed fans of the bands covered.

The rock press on both sides of the Atlantic came to call this style “shoegazing,” initially a mocking term that grew into a generally accepted genre label. And yet this word does not appear even once in Beautiful Noise, largely because some of the interviewees insisted on its absence. Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins reassured the directors with a wry joke, noting that the word “mafia” does not appear in The Godfather either. Even so, this still seems like an oddly timid act of self-censorship, highlighting the film’s overly reverential tone.

Green and Ogletree began this project a decade ago, conducting most of their interviews between 2005 and 2007. Stuck in limbo by financial and licensing issues, production was finally completed with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign launched in 2012. Some of the talking heads inevitably look a little outdated, especially defunct bands that have since reformed, but this is not a serious flaw. More problematic is the film’s cheap, homemade look and occasional sloppy visual effects, such as the graphic map of Britain, which appears to pinpoint My Bloody Valentine’s hometown of Dublin across the border in Northern Ireland.

Beautiful Noise never quite imposes a convincing shape on its sprawling narrative, covering too much ground with too little critical analysis. The three main bands at the heart of the story could each fill their own feature-length films, so inevitably this multi-voice patchwork only skims the surface of their backstage dramas. And while they may have had mutual friends and record labels in common, the film never makes a solid case for them belonging to a coherent musical movement.

Political and cultural context also is strikingly light. Most of these bands were in their prime during Margaret Thatcher’s divisive reign, the end of the Cold War, the explosion of drug-fueled rave culture in the U.K. and the generational youthquake of grunge in the U.S. Was their music a reaction to these seismic forces or an escape from them? No point looking for answers here. Green and Ogletree note in passing that these bands were fairly progressive in their gender politics, but otherwise they barely probe outside narrow, music-focused topics.

In short, Beautiful Noise falls halfway between an informative rockumentary and a missed opportunity. In technical terms, it feels more like a demo tape than a polished studio recording. Some of the broader accents, especially among the Scottish interviewees, may require subtitles for U.S. screenings. But for a fan who loved these bands first time around, the groundbreaking music celebrated in the film can still tingle the spine and jangle the nerves. It also sends you home hungry to hear the albums again, and there is no higher tribute.

Production company: HypFilms
Starring: Kevin Shields, Robin Guthrie, Jim Reid, Trent Reznor, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Wayne Coyne, Emma Anderson, Alan Moulder, Brian Reitzell, Bobby Gillespie, Ivo Watts-Russell
Director: Eric Green
Writer: Eric Green
Producers: Eric Green, Sarah Ogletree
Cinematographers: Chris Otwell, Eric Green, Sarah Ogletree
Editor: Sarah Ogletree
Music: Brad Laner
Sales contact: HypFilms
No rating, 90 minutes