A Curious Premiere

Dunst&JohnRobb

So I’ve spent the last two years [at least!] creating this film, producing my very own baby after a very hard labour that I am finally, massively, ridiculously proud of. It’s been a struggle though; a battle, a painful, painful process riven with strife and doubt and fear. I’ve basically been through the whole creative maelstrom, step by step, that goes something like this:

1. This is awesome
2. This is tricky
3. This is shit
4. I am shit
5. This might be ok
6. This is awesome

Well, to be honest, maybe I only got to number 5 but you know, I feel as though I’ve finally cracked it. Finally all that toil and sweat and tears and sleepless nights has gotten me somewhere. To my goal. I’m living the dream. I’m high on adrenaline and relief and joy. I’ve done it. Solved the conundrum. Completed the jigsaw. Defeated the demons. I’ve finished my film!

Except I haven’t. Because this isn’t the end. No. This is just the beginning…

It’s Sunday 15th June and on a small stage in the basement of the Red Gallery in East London the Levellers are soundchecking. I’m already relieved: the band are here, there is a stage and they look happy. Given the lead-up to getting the band to agree to do this acoustic performance and the gentle wrangling and negotiating with band, crew and festival alike this is a total result! I’d entered the film into a number of film festivals and had been waiting for a “yes”; after a few knockbacks, which however polite or encouraging they are; still hurt, the wonderful East End Film Festival were very keen to screen it; they loved the film and would love to get the band to perform as well. It would be an event. I’m overjoyed and incredibly nervous at the same time. I’m trying to be blasé about the whole thing but really I’m delighted this is happening and just hope, hope, hope that everything goes to plan.

The screening is a sellout well in advance and it’s apparent that there’s a lot of Levellers fans here; definitely not a “documentary” crowd as such, and so the atmosphere is electric and expectant. The musician and writer John Robb introduces the film and admits that he has yet to see it but is confident that it will be great. And then we’re off. Squeaky bum time.

Eighty minutes later and the film has gone down really well; it’s fascinating for me watching it with a large crowd, noticing what gets a big laugh, what gets missed and what bits fall flat. I’m sat with my friend Lorraine who openly admits to not knowing the first thing about the Levellers. I have to apologise for laughing at my own film a few times but she loves it nevertheless. This makes me very happy, knowing that someone can come to the film cold and be totally engaged; we must have done something right! And apart from the wonderful audience reaction I was relieved and happy to hear and see the band themselves totally enjoying it. All those disparaging comments, the bad press and the jokes and the teasing and the one liners are embraced wholeheartedly; proof to me that this band are an amazing bunch of ne’erdowells.

We get an amazing response at the end of film, and that combined with the rush for the toilets means that most people miss the final conversation between Jeremy and Boakesy about the band’s 25 years of subsidized dysfunctionality. I don’t mind though; this response is well worth missing it for.

The Q&A that follows with John Robb flies by; I only wish we’d had time to take questions from the floor but we have to finish quickly as the Levellers acoustic performance is about to begin. Someone on twitter said they blasted the roof off the place [good going as we were in the basement] and I think they were about right. I use the word “triumph” more in jest than in seriousness but yeah, I was pretty [legally] high on the journey home back to Brighton afterwards where me and Steve [one of the exec producers from the Levellers’ office] gabble constantly about future plans and running through the evening’s events until that neverending late night train journey to Brighton inevitably sucks the life out of us and we eventually come down back to earth. What a great evening; hopefully there are going to be many more. See you at the next screening hopefully!

photo

The Boatman Stays in the Picture

simon&boat

Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you thought they would.

I had always wanted this film to be a combination of revealing insight into how the band function and how they’ve managed to stay together for so long without killing each other or ending up in court and a human story where we get to see and understand something of the band members’ personal lives and their characters.

Obviously Jeremy features very heavily as the leading character and we have lots of footage to understand him and love him as an individual as well as enjoy him presenting various ideas about the band.

Other band members feature less, or in some cases, a lot less due sometimes to their own willingness and desire to be involved and sometimes down to me deciding what is working and what is relevant. Occasionally an interview would go better or worse than planned and I would reassess how important or valuable that particular scene was for the film. Occasionally interviewees would be interesting and revealing off camera but as soon as the camera was switched on become a bit too guarded or self-aware or just clam up completely. Sometimes this was my fault for not pressing the right buttons, asking the right questions or trying too hard to get the interviewee to say what I wanted for the sake of my film. Other times, the interviewee just wasn’t open enough, candid enough or interesting enough. And sometimes it was just no-one’s fault; it just didn’t work it.

When I first started working with the band [and I’ve already previously mentioned this in an earlier blog] Simon scared the living daylights out of me with his scathing, first night midnight rant on the sleeper bus. He’s going to be a handful I thought. And yet what transpired was that Simon became for me at least, this loveable renegade, the loose canon, as Jeremy describes him, a man of extremes but also a charming rogue who I found to be open and honest as well as a bit bonkers at times.

Simon has a scene in the film which has caused a split amongst people who have seen it. After the death of both his mother and his long term partner Jude, Simon moves onto a houseboat. Those who know the Levellers well, will immediately recognise the significance of this because of the Simon-penned song “The Boatman” on “Levelling The Land”. He admits himself that he is finally living his dream despite the very tragic circumstances that have brought him here. I like the scene; to me it was one of the few really human moments in the film where we forget that he’s Simon from the Levellers and that here is a man struggling to readjust to a new way of life following two massive losses in his life. We see a side to him we haven’t previously seen and I buy it; I find it powerful and revealing. I also think it has a positivity and acceptance which might even be helpful and comforting for some.

But is this scene more important than learning that the Levellers never cracked America? Is listening to Simon describe his day to day routine more relevant than finding out why Stephen Boakes brushes his teeth before he goes on stage? Who knows? It’s all subjective anyway isn’t it? It’s a strange process when you’re deciding what to include and what to leave out of your film; it raises so many questions about what is the truth, whose story is this, how do I as a director, influence and manipulate the viewer, and can anyone truly make a completely objective documentary?

I believe I have created a film about the Levellers that tries its’ damnest to be honest, revealing, warm and entertaining. Not everyone will be happy with the whole thing; that’s inevitable but given the circumstances I do believe that what we have made is a touching, poignant, sometimes hilarious film which is as heartwarming as it is rocking and as Jeremy so rightly states a wonderful  ”journey through 25 years of subsidised dysfunctionalism”.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

Talking Heads

A few blogs ago I was on about that documentary about New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane called New York Doll. As part of the music documentary-by-numbers process there were a selection of celebrity talking heads telling us how amazing/influential/iconic/seminal the New York Dolls were.

Sadly, for me at least, one of those heads was Bob Geldof. To cut to the chase; I hate Bob Geldof. Not completely irrationally but, you know, close enough. I had the misfortune to meet him once (we were both playing at a very small festival in Middlesbrough so you get an idea of how prestigious it was). He was one of the most boorish, arrogant, obnoxious men I have had the displeasure to be backstage with. So when he turned up in that otherwise lovely documentary telling me stuff about the Dolls that was already apparent anyway as well as blahhing about some schmaltzy backslapping rubbish about going to see them my back was immediately up. It marred the film for me. Why was it necessary to have him there? Did it lend gravitas? Kudos? Give us some level of insider knowledge? No, not really. It was Bob Geldof talking about Bob Geldof. It just meant that the film publicity can say it features some exclusive interview footage with a twat talking bollocks.

Loads of music documentaries get celebrity musos in to usually state the obvious. Yes, this band were/are great, yes they influenced my own career massively, yes they changed music forever and so on and so on, blah, blah, blah.

Look at this list of musos featured in music docs:

musicdocwhores

I’ve nothing against Henry Rollins but appearing in 23 music docs? That’s a lot of head talking! There was a time when Paul Morley appeared in so many arts documentaries that I began to wonder how he actually found time to do anything else in his life. And after a while it inevitably becomes more about the celebrity talking rather than the subject.

Anyway, when I was making this film about the Levellers I had to make a decision about whether I went down that particular path. I thought I would give it a go. First up was Frank Turner who I interviewed backstage at Beautiful Days. Frank really wanted to do the interview because he was such a massive Levellers fan and they had influenced him massively and he could play the first two Levellers albums from start to finish. He was a lovely bloke. Down to earth, candid, engaging and funny. We only talked for about half an hour and I thought we’d got some good stuff.

The next day at the same festival I asked another “celebrity” for an interview. I explained to him what the film was about. His first question was “How long do you want?” “Ten minutes?” I replied. “Five, go and get your camera” he curtly replied. At that point, hungover as I was I thought should I just say “Look, I’m not even that bothered if you’re in the film and to be honest talking to me like that, well, you can go and fuck yourself you arrogant twat”.

But I didn’t. Some level of professionalism kicked in as I bit my tongue and went to get my camera and subsequently did a short interview with him which was a largely pointless exercise and just left me feeling dirty and depressed. I gave up on the “celebrity talking head” idea after that and re-thought the method of telling the Levellers’ story via different channels.

Comparing that experience to the warmth and humour and openness of Brian and Sheila Cunningham left me in no doubt who I would rather see up on a screen. Their passion and insight into their son spoke volumes to me and gave us an angle into the development and significance of the band which is far more enlightening than a few off-pat answers from a tired and spoilt pop star. They felt so much more “human”. And genuine. And they gave me biscuits.

As for Frank Turner, well I’m sure he’ll turn up on those ever-expanding DVD extras.

Dunstan Bruce
Director

Deleted Scenes

When I was in the band Chumbawamba the process of writing songs for a new album was a pragmatic, democratic process. We would talk for hours about what we wanted the album to say as a whole, we would explore themes, ideas, moods, sounds, influences whilst discussing the current political climate, in fact we were probably debating what was “trending” but nobody used such a wanky term back then. We would come up with musical and lyrical ideas, attempt to turn them into beautifully constructed songs, collate enough of them and when we felt we had explored our given concept for that particular album enough we would call it a day and get on with the job of putting the whole thing together as a piece, a work of creative art,a collective statement that we were proud of and happy with but which also we hoped, would touch the listener on a variety of levels. We hoped it would communicate something emotionally, musically, politically and maybe inspire or move someone or just give someone an enormous amount of pleasure. Not much to ask.

But then there were the b-sides.

We would always end up with a few songs that didn’t quite fit in, that didn’t quite convey a message well enough, that weren’t as well constructed, were poorly executed, too twee, too obvious or just not that memorable. And we would sit in a meeting and eventually someone in the band would sound the death kneel “we could use it as a b-side maybe?’

And that was it; songs rarely recovered from being labeled as such, seldom did they spring back to life and end up being track one side one openers or live favourites. They were functional, not-as good-as-the rest fillers and they’d invariably end up on some obscure benefit album, given away for free to some unsuspecting worthy cause only re-surfacing when it was time for the obligatory Chumbawamba “b-side and oddities” compilation album. You get the picture.

jeremyminsterAnyway, I was reminded of that process whilst finally, finally putting this film to bed last week with our online editor, the very wonderful and talented Dave Austin. We were prepping the film for the final online and after masses of tinkering on my half and masses of tidying up on his we sat down to watch the film for one last time. It was at that point that we both had to grudgingly admit that one particular scene, as funny and informative as it was just didn’t work where it was. I’d become particularly attached to this scene; one where Jeremy and I go on a tour of York Minster, so we tried it somewhere else. It still didn’t work. There was a knowing silence in the room. Dave didn’t need to say anything and so with the brutality of a Channel 4 Executive Producer cutting a positive portrayal of one of the residents of Benefit Street I broke the silence and uttered the words “Take it out” So out it went and straight into the deleted scenes timeline, a timeline which is becoming a very, very busy timeline by now.

boakesteethWhat I’ve realised in all of this though is that these two processes are not the same. Some of the deleted scenes we have, which will no doubt appear as DVD extras one day, are cracking little scenes full of humour and pathos and revealing anecdotes but if they don’t help tell the story you want to tell, or merely reiterate an earlier scene or detract from the main narrative or make the film drag then you’ve just got to be brutal. So a hilarious scene with didgeridoo player Boakesy brushing his teeth before a gig has also gone. Terry John and Phil Nelson telling us about the wild parties at the Metway in the 90s; gone. Mark performing solo in a wonderful little record store in Lewes; gone. The list goes on and despite these scenes being delightful and amusing they failed the “overall narrative” test.

Don’t worry though; one day you’ll be able to see them all and maybe you’ll think “Why wasn’t that in the film?!” or maybe not. Either way, I’m sad that some of those scenes aren’t in the film but know that it’s for the best. You’ll just have to wait for the DVD release later in the year to see if you agree…

Dunstan Bruce
Director

Brian & Sheila

So one day in December 2012 me and the uber-talented Canadian FCP editor-cum-cameraman Jim Scott set off to Crawley to film with Jeremy’s mum and dad, Brian and Sheila Cunningham. I was hoping that they could give us some back story into how Jeremy ended up doing what he did in his life and maybe we would learn something about his upbringing, his education and his early exploits.

In the words of Marti de Berghi, director of the greatest music documentary of all time, Spinal Tap, “we got more; much more”. From the moment we arrived at their secluded cul de sac when Sheila answered the front door it was apparent that they were “up” for the interview. Chaos immediately ensued. Me and Jim were shell-shocked.

brian&sheilaBefore we could even focus our Canons, check sound levels or even put our bags down Brian and Sheila launched into a detailed account of the first time they had ever seen the Levellers live (it was at Brighton Urban Free Festival if you’re interested).  It was a fantastic anecdote which immediately sent us pell mell into a guided tour of the bathroom which was full of Jeremy’s artwork, and the hall (gold discs) and to bear witness to the one centimetre diameter spot of black ink on the settee in the living room (where Jeremy spilt some ink whilst illustrating a poster for the band’s Albert Hall show).

The rapport between the two of them was amazing to witness. It literally was a case of lighting the blue touch paper and standing back – well back, because Brian, an ex-boxer, found it impossible to stay sat down. He bobbed and weaved his way through the interview, occasionally leaving the room and returning with some golden nugget from Jeremy’s childhood. Jeremy had made the wise decision to leave the house whilst we talked to his mum and dad as he was well aware of their propensity for embellishment and/or mis-remembering various events. Not wanting to spend his whole time pedantically correcting them he took the dog for a walk instead. Wise, I thought, very wise.

Brian and Sheila were on fire; they were in fact like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences, correcting each other mid-flow, rolling eyes and laughing at each other’s inability to totally recall a tale. Their stories were priceless, their candidness revealing, their unconditional love touching.

Some will love Brian and Sheila in the film and inevitably some won’t but to me they are stars, absolute stars and they have brought an aspect to the film that I could only have dreamt of. When Brian, stood up and head out of shot, proclaims that Jeremy’s friends hugged him saying “You saved our lives more than once Mr Cunningham!” my heart melts whilst guffawing loudly every time. Who’d have thought that this loveable, irascible old man was responsible for keeping the Levellers alive when they were squatting in Brighton.

We salute you Brian and Sheila Cunningham!

Dunstan Bruce
Director

From bass to lead.

I was thinking the other day about music documentaries which feature the bass player as the lead character, so to speak. Apart from some preening promo piece about Sting all I could come up with was “Lemmy” (obviously) and the not-so-powerfully marketed New York Doll: The Story of Arthur “Killer” Kane”

I had seen this documentary a few years ago; Arthur “Killer” Kane used to be the bass player for the seminal glam-punk band The New York Dolls, but after losing everything and hitting rock bottom, he found God in the form of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Or Mormonism to you and me. Then thirty years after the band broke up, he gets a second chance to live the rock ‘n’ roll dream when the Dolls reunite for a special one-off show as part of Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in 2004 in London.arthurkaneNYD

Kane’s story is to some degree tragic, because after the band broke up, he tried but failed to succeed on his own and at one point, tried to kill himself, before finding salvation in the Church of Latter Day Saints.

From narcissistic rock band to being a Mormon; there’s a fascinating story told here watching Arthur go from his new life in the church back to the glam and glitz of the Dolls, seeing him prepare for their big show while dealing with the nerves of playing again. Kane is a giant of a man with a childlike honesty to him that makes you empathise with him but also ask questions about the effect [detrimental or otherwise] of his time in the Dolls and also his current state of mental and physical health. Some of these questions aren’t satisfactorily answered whilst some emphatically are.

New York Doll includes some great archival footage of the band, as well as interviews with those who were around and about at the height of the Dolls’ fame. It is in fact a tad too celebrity-heavy for my liking; it’s far more interesting to hear Arthur’s elderly co-workers at the Mormon Church talking about him in such a different way, not knowing his previous life of debauchery.

Greg Whiteley’s documentary bounces back and forth from the past to the present; particularly effectively when combining live footage from then and now. There is a tragic epilogue to this story, but it’s emotional to watch Kane have the chance to reunite with his band, and this is a heartwarming documentation of that journey.

And there you go; I’ve accidentally written a review of it. I do totally recommend it and watching it again I can see how I’ve even been influenced by it in making A Curious Life. I might even start referring to Jeremy as Jeremy “Killer” Cunningham from now on…

Dunstan Bruce
Director

Music Docs

I was thinking last night about what actually makes a great music documentary. Or actually I was thinking why do I like the music documentaries I like because that’s kind of Last_Days_Here_FilmPostereasier to think about and more subjective and less definitive. It makes life easier as well I suppose as any conclusion I come to I can’t be proved wrong because it’s just all about me!

So in no particular order and really and honestly off the top of my head my favourite music docs are:

Last Days Here
Dig!
Oil City Confidential
Anvil: The Story Of Anvil
You’re Gonna Miss Me: Roky Erickson
Charles Bradley: Soul Of America
Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster
A Band Called Death

There are loads and loads of other music documentaries I really love too; the historic ones, the ones that are about a specific event or moment in time, the nostalgic ones, the ones that look and sound beautiful, the inspiring ones, the excruciating ones, the ones I’ve ABandCalledDeath-Posterforgotten, in fact I would pretty much watch any music doc and manage to get something out of the experience but this list – my list – is all about the human condition in one way or another.

I would recommend all those documentaries because they talk to us about more than just music and they feature the eccentrics, the survivors, the outsiders, the underdogs, the lovers and the fighters. I love them all and each one inspired me in different ways. I’d look them up if I was you.

Always a touchstone for me is “Would Daisy Asquith watch it?” in that I know Daisy has no interest whatsoever in music documentaries because they’re usually, as she says, “Full of boring blokes blahhing on about boring blokes”. And she’s right. Most of them are.

In making this A Curious Life I have tried my damnedest to make a documentary that tells us more than dates and albums and recording techniques and ever-changing line-ups. I’ve tried to tell the story of Jeremy Cunningham; a man who has battled with demons but 51irT0wWXELnever lost his desire, his urge to create, and his need to say and do something meaningful. From the first day I filmed with Jeremy, when he told me to get out of his seat on the tour bus to now I have loved every moment in his company. I just hope now that the rest of the world will too…

Dunstan Bruce
Director

Introducing…

A Curious Life is a feature documentary telling the story of the Levellers via the eccentric artist, archivist, whiskey loving bassist Jeremy Cunningham’s world.

titleplateCURIOUSstory

We’re very excited to announce the film, and it’s been brilliant to see how much interest there has already been in the project. To keep you all updated on the film’s progress, we’ve started a blog! Make sure you’re following us on Twitter, for all the latest news about A Curious Life.

In this first post, the film’s director, Dunstan Bruce, explains how the project came to fruition…

In November 2010 I was invited to go and film with the Levellers, who were about to embark on a tour for the re-release of their first album, “A Weapon Called The Word”. I was asked to do what Steve Farris in the Levellers’ office called a “blogumentary”, which entailed filming (some or any of) the band each day, editing the footage at night then posting a 5 minute film the next day on YouTube.

As a former member of Chumbawamba I had toured with the band back in 1993 in what was a fantastic experience. Now I was filming them on a day-to-day basis and getting to know them all over again. It was an intense but completely rewarding experience (apart from my first encounter with Simon who embarked on a drunken 20 minute rant about his role in the band, the tour they were currently on, the sleeper bus and the inadequate rider which was all caused by the Xbox on the bus not working!).

These short films appeared online throughout the tour and the immediate feedback suggested that there was one character fast becoming the people’s favourite because of his humour, his ease in front of the camera and his downright eccentricity. Jeremy, bassist of the band, was emerging as an absolute star.

I carried on working with the band, producing promotional videos, DVD extras, films to show before their live performances, adverts for tours; in fact anything and everything that the band needed something visual for. As I was spending so much time with the band I asked whether the band would be willing to take part in a documentary that I would direct and produce. They were up for it so I started work on what was to become A Curious Life, Dandy Films’ second music documentary.

Three years later the film is all but finished. What started off as an attempt to explore how the Levellers have stayed together for so long turned quite quickly into a film about Jeremy Cunningham the archivist, the historian, the artist, the bassist and the conduit for telling the story of the band and all their ups and downs and their ultimate survival over the last 26 years.

The film is about 80 minutes long now and will see the light of day sometime in 2014 when eventually the world will get know the real stars of the film; Jeremy’s parents Brian and Sheila Cunningham. Hopefully it will be worth waiting for… 

Dunstan Bruce
Director