January 4, 2015

One day in Sheffield

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014). Like Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth, Florian Habicht’s film about Pulp avoids the routine conventions of the rock biopic by imagining a day in the life – and not of the star this time, but of the setting that produced the band and to which they returned for a possibly final concert in December 2012. No Habicht film is predictable and this one has an audience emphasis or a fan’s eye view and a strong sense of his ebullient personality. Habicht can seem in his documentary work like a sunnier, more naïve Werner Herzog, throwing left-field philosophical questions at his subjects. He asks Pulp front man and lyricist Jarvis Cocker what he last dreamed about, and then illustrates the dream, which has Cocker changing a car tyre in front of a Sheffield housing estate, a meaningful fantasised scene that runs like a version of the dreams and memories that Herzog has given to subjects like Walter Steiner and Dieter Dengler. 

“Are you trying to get a snapshot of Sheffield life, the hopes and dreams of the common people?” says one of Habicht’s more sarcastic interview subjects, and it’s true that he puts more stock in the wisdom of kids and the wisdom of grans than in the words of experts. There are no ageing rock journos here to tell you what Sheffield means, no one to talk about the Human League or Cabaret Voltaire or even Def Leppard, let alone the “socialist republic” and the steel history, and the closest thing to a narrative of the group is when Sheffield guitarist Richard Hawley measures the 12 years between Pulp’s first album It and the breakthrough, Different Class, by holding up their sleeves in a record store. No one recounts Pulp’s influences or talks about the first albums they bought or the time they saw Bowie do “Starman” on Top of the Pops. Author Owen Hatherley’s book-length analysis of “Place, Sex and Class in the Music of Pulp” is condensed into just a couple of sentences. Instead, the film is an affectionate fantasy, a portrait of a city that inspired a band and a band that then provided some soundtracks or unofficial anthems for the city, with “Common People” forever trumping the others. And you may even worry that there is too much of the so-called common person here, but this could be one way for Cocker to keep the spotlight off himself. If in 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave came across as an almost entirely isolated figure imprisoned within the persona he has carefully constructed, the allegedly fame-allergic and highly literate Cocker purports to still be akin to the people he is singing to and about, so he just as skilfully evades our scrutiny.