Just like Dublin buses, you wait for ever for a music documentary to come along and then realise that none are ever going to arrive because the bastards are on strike again! Sorry, that’s not my point. Anyway, out of nowhere I found myself watching two music documentaries in one weekend.
Both these musicians run deep and long in the fabric of my life following music. In 1979 I bought Replicas and The Pleasure Principle as they came out. Also around that time Glenn Campbell’s 20 golden greats was one of the few cassettes my dad had/allowed in his car – it got played a lot, so I’m familiar with the music at least.
“I’ll be me” focuses on Glen as his health declines brutally with Alzheimer’s, and follows him on his last live tour. “Android” has a more mundane core as the Numan family move to LA and Numan tries to make his new album (Splinter). Yet these are both really love stories, with some surprisingly similar themes. There is the love between a man and his music; the love of a married couple; the love between daughters and fathers.
For Glen, music is the last tenuous link his mind has to reality. We see his inability to remember the words to a song without a teleprompter contrast with his instinctive grasp of complex guitar solos. We see the devotion of a woman who is seeing her husband fade into another world whilst still being a physical presence. We see a daughter (and sons, but the focus is on the daughter) prolonging a relationship with a father who no longer knows her name through playing music together. This is a sledgehammer of a film that it is impossible to be dispassionate about – the subject just won‘t allow it.
Whilst the story for the Numan family seems more ordinary, the further we go the more complex it becomes. Numan himself copes with Asperger’s and the long shadow of a moment in time. In 1980 he was famous, rich and for the music press of the day one of the most hated men on the planet. As a couple, Gary and Gemma have gone through childlessness (the first of their three daughters was conceived through IVF) and depression. His young daughters bring infectious life to the film. They have the innate ability that every daughter possesses of portraying their father as legendary hero and utter clown in the same breath. This is a slower burn of a film – you turn round and find it has got under your skin and you are fully engaged.
So, do they work? I’ll take this from different angles
Music Documentaries (urgh!)
The worst of these come off as “promotions for the latest hit record” or are sycophantic pandering to narcissists. Neither suffers from these faults. Of course the music features largely and in the case of Numan it is his most recent release. It sits within the films rather than as the reason for them. The relationship between man and music is the focus, and it is a rich subject. An exploration of Numan’s lyric writing process, which is very like solving a complex jigsaw puzzle, is fascinating and adds to our understanding of the man. How Campbell’s family enable him to perform against all the odds shows the determination, stamina and ingenuity needed to give happiness to an Alzheimer’s sufferer. These are not SpiceWorld – thank god!!
Documentary vs Journalism
How far should the documentary maker influence the audience opinion on the subject? This is a tough one. Some (notably “Amy”) seem to decide on an opinion that we should reach and relentlessly pursue it. Perhaps you can’t help but see an angle and go for it when you are unearthing history and it takes guile and persistence to get the full picture.
In both these films the protagonists are unnervingly open. Glen through Alzheimer’s and Gary through Asperger’s have less ability to hide and deceive. They say what they have to say on the subject, and that’s that.
There are stories left unexplored – the full extent of Campbell’s mood swings and erratic behaviour; Numan’s break in relationship (later reconciled) with his parents. Are they omitted because the film makers want us to see the characters in the story as better people than they actually are? Or is their exploration simply an unnecessary intrusion? In these days of social media and Donald Trump, where having an extreme opinion and spouting half-baked conspiracies are ways to get ahead, it is tempting to see darker motivation. I think the film makers simply took what happened in the moments of filming, and that is what they put across. They met interesting and engaging people and that is what they showed. Bizarrely, in this world the approach is a brave one and they should be applauded for it.
Documentary as a worthwhile form
Here’s the big question – are they worth watching?
In both cases, it’s a resounding yes. “I’ll be me” will probably get more critical acclaim because of the weight of the subject matter and the gravity of the historical moment in (music) history. To my mind it is that they are simply different. Both are engaging and interesting and uplifting. I would love to know more of the story – sit down with the Campbells and hear them talk about Glen; have the Numan family over for a barbecue and watch the girls make fun of their dad. For me that’s the acid test.
Gary Numan: Android in La La land is showing in Dublin IFI on September 15th.