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Low Culture Essay: Stephanie Phillips On Reeling With PJ Harvey
Stephanie Phillips , October 13th, 2022 09:36

The 1994 documentary Reeling With PJ Harvey is not a household name outside of fan communities but to Stephanie Phillips, the Maria Mochnacz directed film remains a fitting example of an artist’s need to curate their image

I’ve spent the last nine years on and off the road with my band Big Joanie. I’ve sat for so long in a cramped van that the sensation of tumbling out at the venue with numb, tingling legs is all-too-familiar. I’ve stood in front of unresponsive crowds who send us into a pit of despair. I’ve been offered little more sustenance than a few cans of beer, packet of crisps, and a smile from uncaring promoters. It’s far from the popular perception of touring being glamorous – leaving your hometown and travelling the world, crowds of wide-eyed devotees screaming your name and affirming the validity of your art. From years of personal experience, I can tell you that there’s a grimy and mundane reality to moving from town to town every day.

Yet touring is often where musicians feel most at home, which is why they often try to capture it in a documentary film – an attempt to share their ‘real’ selves with the world. I’ve been addicted to music and tour docs since I was a teenage music nerd ordering DVDs online, but one that has continued to hold my fascination for over a decade is the 1994 film, Reeling With PJ Harvey, or Reeling, as it is more commonly known. The film was directed by photographer and filmmaker Maria Mochnacz, who for over two decades was Harvey’s main collaborator on her album artwork and music videos. When the pair met Harvey was 18 and played in the band Automatic Dlamini with Mochnacz’s then boyfriend John Parish (who also became a long-time Harvey collaborator). Though Mochnacz was a few years older than Harvey, the two bonded over their shared interest in art. When Harvey needed press images after signing to the independent label Too Pure in 1992, Mochnacz was the first person she called, mainly because she was the only person she knew with a camera. The same logic followed when Harvey needed a video for her single ‘Dress’. Despite having little experience, Mochnacz got stuck in. She went on to create some of Harvey’s most memorable music videos, including ‘Down By The Water’, ‘Send His Love To Me’ and ‘50ft Queenie’.

Reeling was filmed over a three-week span during Harvey’s 1993 European and American tour. It includes live footage from two dates at The Forum in London, and two music videos; ‘50ft Queenie’ and ‘Man-Size’. Mochnacz brought in Peter ‘Pink’ Fowler, co-founder of the late 80s, no frills cult music show Snub TV, as an assistant, as she felt she could not do the live filming justice by herself. Filled with backstage banter and rare performance footage set against the backdrop of the dull interiors of 90s music venues, the film offers a rare insight into the world of Polly Jean Harvey at the start of her career.

I have watched Reeling more times that I can recall. I first fell in love with Harvey in my teens around the time of her 2004 album Uh Huh Her and was drawn in by honesty and frank interpretations of love, lust, and life. For some reason sitting in my teenage bedroom with no boyfriend or even crush to speak of, listening to a woman singing about becoming so infatuated with a man that she’d cut off his legs made sense to me – I’m a romantic, what can I say? As a teenager with too much time on my hands I spent evenings after school trying to find old interviews and press photos, or waiting ten minutes to stream a two-minute music video in the early days of YouTube. One fateful day when I was looking for ways to waste money on eBay I found a VHS copy of Reeling.

When it arrived in the post a few weeks later I rushed upstairs to my bedroom, put the tape into the VHS machine of my clunky 15-inch metallic blue Argos TV and pressed play. As someone who dreamed of one day playing in a band too, I lived vicariously through that tour, imagining one day I could stage photoshoots in hotel rooms and casually mention that a billionaire businessman wants to help fund my songwriting, as Harvey does here. For years I took Reeling with me everywhere I moved, from my first university dorms to my first shared house in South London. Even after that cheap telly broke down and VHS players became completely obsolete, I held onto my copy. There’s something precious about being able to touch and feel an object connected to an artist who has had such an impact on you. It was as if without it, that connection would disappear.

Although my VHS copy of Reeling is no longer in my possession, watching the film on YouTube still summons the same magic. As a director Mochnacz is loose, allowing each scene to unfold with both wondrous and awkward results. The film embodies the warts and all rawness that was a feature of much of Harvey and Mochnacz’early music videos, such as ‘Man Size’, which favoured capturing the energy of the moment over getting the perfect take. Speaking to the PJ Harvey fansite Electric Light in the late 90s, Mochnacz looked back on the making of Reeling and revealed that she thought she “totally blew it". She explained, “I had no plans, I just decided to shoot everything. I don't think I was produced properly, I wasn't given any boundaries [...]. There are a few scenes that I'm proud of but I do leave shots running too long."

In one sequence the camera focuses on the band in a dressing room dissecting the low energy crowd they’ve just experienced. The scene runs to the point where it feels like Mochnacz has accidentally left the camera on, left the room and forgot about it. Although as Mochnacz admits there are faults with the documentary, it works best when her presence is acknowledged by those around her. The lens becomes an additional character for the band and crew to converse with. In the beginning, they make jovial comments, sometimes staring directly at the camera like curious animals in a nature documentary. As the tour continues however, the discomfort being documented begins to show, particularly among the members of Harvey’s band. Drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughn both begin to recoil when the camera homes in on their face.

In contrast, Harvey’s relationship with the camera, and in turn Mochnacz, is entirely natural. In an opening scene on their tour bus Harvey is halfway through telling a story when she looks down the lens of the camera and asks, “if I look here is that like looking in your eyes?" There is no trepidation on her face; this camera is an extension of her artistry, and perhaps a part of her. The two friends had already spent the past few years with a camera between them staging photoshoots and videos so the presence of one now did not interrupt their flow; if anything, it became an essential part of how they communicated. Their preexisting friendship seemed to give their conversation a warm dynamic, allowing Harvey to come out of her shell.

It certainly helped shift perceptions of PJ Harvey. She was frequently personally identified with the violent chaos of her songs, a mysterious figure, a shy, reclusive artist who wrote about love, desire and pleasure in all of its brutality. Yet in Reeling she pulls goofy faces while slicking on globs of hair gel backstage and jokes about emasculating drummer Rob Ellis by making him sing falsetto, leaving a pair of pliers on his seat before he records his vocals. To see her acting like this was a revelation at the time. It is, to date, one of the few times Harvey appears loose and comfortable in herself on screen. She becomes less rigid as the tour goes on, forgoing her strict pre-gig vocal warm up sessions in venue toilets in favour of trying out new glamourous stage costumes, and admitting to enjoying a drink or two. Confiding in Mochnacz behind the camera after a few weeks on tour, Harvey says, “It’s better to be a bit of a mess and happy than holding it together and be miserable."

Reeling is not the only tour documentary in which the artist has tried to communicate an essential part of themselves and take control of their own narrative. In the 2012 film Shut Up And Play The Hits, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy indulges in what was then supposedly his last hurrah as journalist Chuck Klosterman follows him for 48 hours from the morning of his last gig to the next day. Beyoncé’s 2019 concert film Homecoming, which documented her stint at Coachella (or Beychella as that year’s edition was jokingly renamed), presented her as a peerless global superstar with an impossibly strong work ethic. Yet it was also a political touchpoint for the Black experience that paid homage to the artistry found at America’s historically Black colleges. The most interesting tour film I’ve seen recently was St Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s 2020 mockumentary Nowhere Inn. The duo had initially planned to shoot a normal tour documentary, but eventually decided on a surrealist interpretation of both the genre and St Vincent’s persona. Although it became a scripted film, Nowhere Inn is still a sharp insight into St Vincent as an artist and her fascination with the esoteric, akin to her heroes like David Byrne.

In Reeling, Harvey succeeded in showing us a softer persona that she felt didn’t come across in the media. Speaking to journalist Dave Fanning in the Sky series Talks with Dave Fanning in 2006, Harvey said, “I find interviews always disappointing for myself. I come out of them feeling I let myself down or I didn’t mean it in that way." She described speaking to journalists as “a very painful horrible process, but I understand it’s an important thing to do even from the point of letting people know that you’ve made a record or are still breathing." Harvey became so connected to taking control of her image that she released a second tour documentary On Tour: Please Leave Quietly in 2006, which followed her life on the road during the Uh Huh Her tour.

Is the tour documentary format the best way to understand a musician? Yes and no. As much as we the audience feel like we’re momentarily part of their world, for all the backstage footage and inside jokes, we’re ultimately still under the power of the director, only getting to see what they want us to see. We see this towards the end of Reeling when Harvey and her band begin their 1993 US tour. It was during this period that tensions with her band really began to show, with Harvey saying to Rolling Stone at the time, “It makes me sad. I wouldn't have got here without them. I needed them back then – badly. But I don't need them anymore. We all changed as people." There is a moment in a dressing room where the three musicians seem disconnected. When the rest of the band leave the room, Harvey begins speaking to Mochnacz, we assume about them, but the audio cuts out, censoring her words. It is a frank reminder that even in a film in which she had such a large personal involvement, there is only so much Harvey is willing to share.

There is a part of me that fully understands Harvey’s need for privacy and control of her image, especially given that she was a woman who had achieved a remarkable level of fame and received the resulting intense scrutiny so quickly and at a young age. Although this is Mochnacz’s film and Harvey is in front of the camera for much of it, Harvey’s hand can be felt in the direction of each scene. The film tells us as much in the opening shot where the camera slowly pans around a chaotically decorated dressing room and focuses in on a mirror propped up against the wall, revealing that Harvey is actually behind the camera. It is as if the director and artist are saying to the audience, ‘welcome to Polly Jean Harvey’s world. Come see through her eyes, feel what she feels… if you dare’. In the end, this seems to get to the essence of what most artists want from their documentaries – to convey their world as they know it to be, even if it differs from our perceived reality. Harvey and Mochnacz’s world-building in Reeling will always stay with me, especially when I’m back on tour again, trying to keep my energy levels up with just a Tesco value packet of pitta bread and a pot of questionable looking hummus. While, I could not claim that my tales of mundanity from the road would be as fascinating and revealing as Reeling, those tales would alas be my own and mine alone.