Director Niall McCann sets his lens on musical artist, Luke Haines, in his docufilm, Art Will Save the World, following album After Murder Park, before, and everything in between
If Luke Haines were famous, he would probably be famous for being a hateful jerk. As the man himself has noted more than once, 99 per cent of press relating to an upcoming Luke Haines record, book, or concert will lazily encumber the artist with tags such as ‘belligerent,’ ‘sore-headed,’ and especially ‘misanthropic.’ But Mr Haines isn’t famous, nor is he hateful (not really), and so it is with curious intent that first-time director Niall McCann attempts to unearth the story behind the sneer via his admirable, if bemusing, documentary, Art Will Save The World.
The film premiered at the East End Film Festival, and as I negotiate the unglamorous bowels of what I imagine to be a trendy Shoreditch cinema, I am not at all surprised by the faces bobbing up in the meagre crowd. All of the usual suckers are here. I have been a song-requesting, lyric-mouthing, encore-cheering attendee at more Haines shows than I care to mention, and the same core cell of London fans always follows the three-line whip and rolls up.
Most of the Haines brigade falls into the same camp: white, middle-aged males with interests spanning music, European beer, and divorce. There is, however, a splinter faction: two colourfully dressed ladies in their 20s. Next to me and my comrades, these Luke-ettes are surely the youngest of the bunch, and have been spotted at previous gigs hobnobbing with Haines’s old band mates John Moore and Sarah Nixey. On some evenings I picture myself approaching one of these indie-damsels to ask if they’d like to uncork a bottle of merlot and listen to my two-disc LP of the seminal England Made Me record. But tonight is not the night, and instead I follow the 200 or so assembled admirers into the screening room. As the house lights dim, a crackle of genuine excitement runs through my frail, fan-boyish heart. After all, this is a film about Luke Haines, and I am at the premiere.
Art Will Save The World turns out to be okay. Over the course of the film’s 70-minute running time I learn virtually nothing about Luke Haines, his biography and his art, which I am not already well aware of. But this is not necessarily an altogether bad thing. The documentary opens with a weary Haines ostensibly returning from a (fabricated?) spell in Buenos Aires, and it is immediately apparent that McCann knows his quarry. The Brit-in-exile back-story, rain-swept seaside location, and the artist’s self-admittedly unreliable narration do a good job of pitching the tone in key with Haines’s songs and the world they create and inhabit.
The director opts to steer a loosely chronological route through the few hurrahs and frequent farces of a career which is noteworthy not only for of the music it has born, but for the very fact that it has been allowed to continue. Joining Haines during his formative years with late 80s indie-pop underdogs, The Servants, we tailgate the linen-suited Englishman as he rips up Britpop with the villainous Auteurs, scores a freak hit with Black Box Recorder, and recoils into obscurity as a solo artist. This biographical thrust renders the film partially redundant to those of us who have read Haines’s two violently funny memoirs, and of course everyone in the room has pored over each volume at least once (probably twice).
What spares Art Will Save The World from being an audio book with pictures are the points at which McCann attempts, not always gracefully, to make Haines’s work manifest itself on screen. The director is obviously savvy enough to realise that the artist is not likely to disclose the nitty-gritty particulars of his personal life, and so wisely opts to chauffeur the petulant Haines through scenes straight out of his source material. We see Haines at the infamous Walton Hop. We see him on the street he was born. And again, we find him, this time at the woodland burial place of a murdered child. It is telling that the film features no input whatsoever from Haines’s ex-lover and former Auteurs bassist Alice Readman, nor any other band mate save for original drummer Glenn Collins (who is afforded a leaf-sweeping cameo). This documentary was not designed to lift Luke Haines’s mask, but rather to examine how beautiful and ghastly it can be.
Those contributors who are roped in to give us the scoop on the ‘real’ Haines are less convincing. Intermittent talking heads sessions from former managers, A & R men, and celebrity enthusiasts seem wide off the mark with their insistence that Haines is some sort of pariah’s icon, and leave sections of the film feeling a bit like a rubbish BBC4 special. Supposed author Tim Mitchell gets it particularly wrong with a breathy reading from his regrettable Haines-centric novel Truth and Lies in Murder Park, and follows up with unfounded, and faintly creepy, musings on the artist’s childhood and upbringing. At least Jarvis Cocker provides some laughs as he examines Haines’ particular fondness for the C word.
Once the 70 minutes are up, the director takes to the front of the auditorium for a quick Q&A, followed by the man himself, who is resplendent in a black shirt and sporting his trademark handlebar face fuzz. Various boring questions are asked by predictable sorts of men, and Haines offers ambivalent responses to pretty much all of them. Sadly, the really very charming Niall McCann just comes out with a lot of stuff about artistic objectivity that didn’t really come through in the film for a second. I don’t much fancy entering into this woolly forum, so I keep mum, but if I did pipe up, I think I’d ask whether there is an audience for this film beyond the sallow ranks of the Luke Haines fan club. Though, to be honest, I don’t think Mr Haines would care either way.
Image from: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/music/live_reviews/103218-luke_haines_cabaret_voltaire_22_aug
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