“There is a chord in Babies. A G-Major-7. And it’s not quite right feeling, it’s not quite happy. Nearly happy. And that makes me feel homely.” So says Bomar as he sits by a run-down and long-disused canal in his hometown of Sheffield. Later, having relocated to a derelict warehouse amongst the remains of a collapsed ceiling, he goes on to discuss how he escaped from the “loony bin” to return to Sheffield for some music and affection before being hauled back to the hospital.
It’s these slightly broken but characterful things – both people and locations – which forms the focus of Florian Habicht’s documentary, as much as the eponymous band. The desolate and bleak cityscape of Sheffield is often beautifully framed, but rarely with a fetishisation of decay. Instead it’s filmed with an endearing and sincere appreciation of reality, and how a place, however unspectacular or mundane, can come to mean so much more to those who consider it ‘home’.
Such people populate the 90-minutes of the film: traders in the city market, youngsters playing in front of their semi-detached brick house, a newspaper seller, elderly ladies off on their daily shop, a swimmer and a knife maker. Unremarkable people captured in their everyday world, talking about where they are, how they feel and, sometimes, Pulp.
Then, when the camera switches to Jarvis and co. they are not the popstars from the music videos, the performers from the stage, but instead are represented as people in their normal surroundings. Also talking about where they are, how they feel and, sometimes, the multi-platinum selling band they were a part of.
The film is built around the run-up to, and the performance of, one of Pulp’s final ever concerts, for the finale of the 2012 reunion tour. Between the return visits to the arena, dressing rooms and stage, we are treated to a variety of archive material, interviews and observations of Yorkshire life. Some of that archive footage features an early VHS recording of Pulp in a much lower-budget show in their hometown – home-made dry ice spilling from a saucer, a TV wrapped in tinfoil for on-stage visuals, and crap fake snow being blown by a “very ineffective wind machine which made them look like they were just hoovering up the mess on the stage”. This final tour, Jarvis says, was trying to do that early one again. But properly.
Pulp are not projected as popstars here. They are locals who wrote some poetry and picked some notes which then resonated far beyond the post-industrial streets of their childhood. Even the content of their hits weren’t glamour and sensation. Pulp’s songs drip with sex and desire, but it’s never the romantic, dramatic and super-real conquests that pop’s rhythm normally gyrates to, but the awkwardness, failure and mess of real passion.
This is Hardcore, their 1998 album and follow up to the era-defining Different Class, reeks of the filth, rawness and despair of this kind of sex. It also marks a return to reality for a band who had trouble coping with the fame that the previous few years had flung their way – “[Fame] was like a nut allergy, it just didn’t agree with me,” said Jarvis.
This disjunct between the notion of celebrity and of just being someone who becomes famous is frequently returned to. “It was like being kidnapped in the middle of the night, stuck in the back of a car then dumped in some other place, like Portugal… and you were suddenly in another world,” Jarvis states. Candida, the band’s keyboard player who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 16 adds “You don’t go on Top of the Pops with Arthritis. Popstars don’t have illnesses. They maybe have drug addictions, but they don’t have illnesses.”
But for all the intelligent editing, truthful reportage of the setting and people, and approach that the film brings to the subjects, it will be interesting to see how much interest the film has outside of the committed Pulp fan-base. Sure, it may become an interesting document in the future in relation to 90s pop culture’s relationship to audience, but there isn’t a lot to entice someone in who wouldn’t already want to sing along to the tracks as Jarvis sings from the stage.
At the end of the film, and the end of the gig in Sheffield, Jarvis stands facing the crowd. “I want to live with common people like you”. It seems very sincere, very rooted. The core of their work was this, a meaningful and intent communication to people who identify with them and the situations portrayed in their music.
And then, after the high of the euphoric final notes of the song and with the film’s credits rolling up the page, we get the long sweeping shots of the mundanity of it all – cleaners sweeping debris from the venue, sweaty and coming-down fans gathering friends and heading to the exits in this soulless cavern of a venue. The rapid switch from the ecstasy to the prosaic, the normality of the adulated.
Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets has it’s UK premier at Sheffield Doc. Fest. on 7th June and will be screened around the country with a live Q&A with the band via satellite link.
Words> Will Jennings