Film Review: Spike Island

The sunny rites-of-passage story fueled by early 1990s pop music.

This coming-of-age retro-drama takes place against the backdrop of an epochal live show by British rock icons the Stone Roses.

LONDON - Recent events have generated some priceless free publicity for this sunny coming-of-age drama, which takes place against the backdrop of a famous real-life concert by British rockers the Stones Roses in May 1990. During production, the band’s long-estranged founder members buried the hatchet and reformed after a 16-year hiatus, touring again to general critical and commercial success. The Roses have already inspired one feature film this year, the documentary Made of Stone, directed by Shane Meadows. Released in the UK this week, Spike Island looks likely to benefit from renewed buzz around the band, although the parochial story, slang-heavy dialogue and thick local accents may prove problematic in other territories. Subtitles may be necessary.

Elliott Tittensor and Nico Mirallegro play teenage schoolfriends from a working-class district of Manchester, a city with a proud musical tradition which also gave birth to the Stone Roses. Together they play in a Roses-inspired band, Shadowcaster, and both secretly love the same girl, Sally (Emilia Clarke). Looking past family tensions, money worries and problems at school, these wannabe rock superstars have only one ambition for the coming weekend: to get into the huge open-air Roses show at Spike Island, an old industrial site on the banks of the River Mersey halfway between Manchester and Liverpool.

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Spike Island stylizes and mythologizes a lively chapter in British pop hsitory, but within acceptable limits. The Roses were hugely influential working-class heroes who seemed to be poised for Beatles-level success in 1990. But even at the peak of their fame, everybody in Manchester under the age of 25 did not adopt their “baggy” style of dress wholesale, nor did they endlessly quote the band’s lyrics in conversation. Given that the Roses endorsed this film and allowed their songs to feature heavily on the soundtrack, a degree of flattering revisionism may be at work here. The notoriously poor sound quality at the Spike Island concert only merits a brief mention, for example.

Director Mat Whitecross began his career alongside the prolific British film-maker Michael Winterbottom, graduating to dramatic features with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, his well-received 2010 biopic of the rocker Ian Dury. He has also directed music videos for the British band Coldplay, all four of whom have executive producer credits on Spike Island. The script is by actor turned screenwriter Chris Coghill, who previously co-starred in Winterbottom’s 2001 celebration of the fabled Manchester record label Factory, 24 Hour Party People. Coghill also plays a role here, as a clownish drug casualty who sleeps in a broken-down truck.

Coghill’s script crams too much contrived melodrama into a single weekend – not just an epochal concert but a family tragedy, a love triangle, a Biblical confrontation between brothers and a game-changing bust-up between friends. All of this feels heavy-handed and clichéd, like clunky soap opera. That said, the film has an engagingly zippy and colorful visual style, evoking the splashy Summer of Love motifs around the Roses, with allusions to their music videos and paint-splattered, Jackson Pollock-esque sleeve artwork.

Sadly the youthful protagonists are painted in much broader brushstrokes, feeling more like cartoon archetypes than flesh-and-blood people. One is so implausibly stupid he seems to be wholly unaware of any towns outside Manchester. The rest are sweet young naifs with nothing in their heads but music and romance. Take away the casual drug use and Spike Island could almost be a sanitized Hollywood youth drama from the 1950s. It is a testament to the capable young cast that they mostly imbue these one-dimensional characters with charm and humor, but they are too thinly written to merit any serious emotional investment.

Spike Island will win no awards for original insights into the adolescent experience, but it has clear built-in appeal to nostalgic middle-aged Brits and Anglophile rock fans. It is best enjoyed as a rose-tinted love letter to a lost era, not as a serious social document.

Production companies: Fiesta Productions, Headgear Films, Bankside Films

Producers: Fiona Neilson, Esther Douglas

Starring: Elliott Tittensor, Nico Mirallegro, Emilia Clarke, Lesley Manville

Director: Mat Whitecross

Writer: Chris Coghill

Cinematographer: Christopher Ross

Editor: Peter Christelis

Sales agent: Bankside Films

Rated 15, 96 minutes