Pulp: SXSW Review

Courtesy of Pistachio Pictures
Sing along with the common people.

A witty, warmhearted, imaginative documentary about the British rock band Pulp’s farewell hometown show.

When the British indie-rock group Pulp reformed for a string of live concerts in 2011 and 2012, they received a rapturous welcome on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike some rock reunions, theirs was almost universally well received, perhaps because they never outstayed their welcome during their imperial pop-star phase in the late 1990s. After quietly putting the group on indefinite hiatus in 2002, singer Jarvis Cocker maintained his profile as a much-loved national treasure in Britain, balancing a weekly BBC radio show with occasional solo albums, film-making and writing projects.

Though it centers on the final UK show of that comeback tour, in December 2012, Pulp is more than a conventional concert documentary. Conceived in collaboration with the German-born New Zealander Florian Habicht, this film is as much a warm and witty love letter to the band’s home city of Sheffield as it is to Pulp itself. Making its world premiere at South by Southwest today, this artful and intelligent rock-doc will likely land further festival play before opening in UK theaters in June. After that it should find a modest but fiercely dedicated audience among the band’s global fanbase, on both big and small screen.

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Cocker is inevitably the main focus here, a man so genetically unsuited to rock stardom he could only ever approach it through dense layers of self-mocking irony. Thanks to his deadpan humor, geek-chic charisma and rubber-limbed stage movements, the gangly singer has carved a unique niche somewhere between genuine sex symbol and high-camp parody of a sex symbol. His darkly funny lyrics, kitchen-sink melodramas full of acute social observation and sexual frustration, strike a deep note of empathy with underdog outsiders everywhere. The band’s best known song, Common People, a scorching critique of class tourism, became Britain’s unofficial national anthem for much of the late 1990s.

Confusingly and inaccurately subtitled “A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets”, Habicht’s quirky outsider’s view of his subject has some of the faux-naif charm of French director Michel Gondry, striking a similar balance between technical skill and knowing playfulness. His previous feature, the 2012 festival prize-winner Love Story, was an inventive mix of documentary and rom-com fantasy partly credited to the New Yorkers who directed the plot in random vox-pop interviews.

The director employs similar outsourcing methods here, roaming the street of Sheffield, making the city a key character in the narrative. A post-industrial steel town immortalized on screen in The Full Monty, this northern English city has a long history of working-class artists and left-field pop music. Habicht visits iconic locations mentioned in Pulp lyrics and meets an eccentric gallery of locals including newspaper vendors, fishmongers, knife-makers and schoolchildren, all of whom share their warm feelings about the band. “The people of Sheffield” are credited in the opening cast list.

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This egalitarian approach extends to the film’s musical elements too. Although he opens with a rousing live version of Common People, and includes plenty of dynamic concert footage from the cavernous Motorpoint Arena show, Habicht keeps standard rockumentary tropes to a minimum. Instead, he enlists amateur choirs, school dance troupes, fans and friends of the band to perform various Pulp numbers at different Sheffield locations. A staged scene in which a cafe full of senior citizens sing Help The Aged, a bittersweet ballad about creeping mortality, is an inspired highlight.

Habicht’s film assumes a certain familiarity with its subject. Viewers expecting a comprehensive history of Pulp, or in-depth insights into their socio-political hinterland, will be disappointed. There is no mention here of even major events from their peak years, such as Cocker’s controversial stage invasion during Michael Jackson’s performance at a 1996 awards show. A few more probing questions would have been welcome, particularly about the group’s disillusionment with fame in the late 1990s (“like a bad nut allergy”, the singer quips) and their reasons for reuniting after a dormant decade.

But even if it tells us nothing new, Pulp is still a handsome cinematic homage to a unique band, a proud city and the unifying power of pop music. The group’s comeback shows felt like a triumphant lap of honor, and Habicht’s film certainly captures that feeling of closure. “Tidying up isn’t the greatest rock’n’roll motivation,” Cocker muses on camera, “but I did want to give the story a happy ending.”

Production company: Pistachio Pictures

Producer: Alex Boden

Cast: Jarvis Cocker, Candida Doyle, Steve Mackey, Mark Webber, Nick Banks

Director: Florian Habicht

Writers: Peter O’Donoghue, Florian Habicht

Cinematographer: Maria Ines Manchego

Editor: Peter O’Donoghue

Sound recordist: Mark Bull

Sales company: Altitude Film Sales

Unrated, 90 minutes