Death Of A Party: Blur – New World Towers Reviewed

Tom Duggins reviews a new documentary based around the recording sessions of Blur's latest album, The Magic Whip

As you move into middle age you have to keep generating or else you risk stagnating. Never shy of a new musical project, and evidently keen to put that principle into practice, Damon Albarn convinced his fellow Blur bandmates to use an unexpected hold-up in Hong Kong as a studio-retreat for crunching out the band’s first new material in a decade. The result was this year’s Magic Whip album and, now, a concert and studio film, New World Towers. It bears a strong resemblance to Shane Meadows’ documentary about The Stone Roses’ reformation (The Stone Roses: Made of Stone), and an even stronger resemblance to the 2010 Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run. Frankly, when the last documentary someone made about your band is titled so as to suggest complete finality and exhaustion it doesn’t exactly signal great things for the next one.

Fundamentally, the problem with New World Towers is the same one facing any film about the writing and recording of an album: when you really get down to it, it’s not a very interesting process. Mostly it’s just four blokes in a room noodling around with some gee-tars – as is quite literally the case here. Even with the story of a truly seminal album, it’s difficult to derive a sizeable chunk of material without relying on considerable artifice in the telling. (The recent Love And Mercy is a good example – it does a great job of portraying the sessions that gave us Pet Sounds in the space of roughly ten minutes). Magic Whip was a decent-enough record with a few memorable highlights and many middling tracks not particularly deserving of all the fuss. All the same, it was sufficiently worthwhile as to please the world’s many Blur fanatics. This documentary, on the other hand, is like a second cuppa brewed from the same tea leaves as the first. It’s watery and weird, and you wonder – did I even want this one that much?

The studio footage only accounts for about fifteen minutes of the film’s running-time anyway. The rest is made-up of concert footage (some of which does give the new material a much fuller, more urgent bite) and band interviews. The trouble is, they’ve already talked about all the genuinely interesting stuff five years ago for No Distance Left To Run. At times, watching this film is like being button-holed by your mate’s trendy dad, newly returned from a mad lad’s getaway over in Thailand. Alex James is the worst culprit – “We got to Hong Kong, smashed it there, and then we were supposed to fly on to Taipei…Damon will say somewhere else but it wasn’t, it was Taipei…”. Christ it’s dull. The others manage to navigate the talking head segments relatively well – excluding one open-ended Tuffnell-iste metaphor which Albarn indulges in on the topic of food and performance – but it’s not exactly pay-off for having to sit through the exceptionally banal footage of Alex James pottering around by the Aga.

Ultimately it’s standard fare, a music documentary which die-hards will be drawn to but which even they may find patience-testing. It certainly won’t win any awards for originality in its filming of the concerts: gratuitous footage of cute girls near the front and (at least) one shot of a couple embracing during an emotional bit, cut in plenty of Albarn MUCKING ABOUT, aaaaaaa-nd we’re done. Live performances of the genuine hits – ‘End of the Century’, ‘Beetlebum’, etc. – do get the film’s pulse properly going, but these have to be meted out fifty-fifty with tracks off Magic Whip: at least one of which veers worryingly close to slow foot-stomping dad-rock of the Quo kind. (A backstage jam of Blur playing ‘Out of Time’ is the big standout pleasure, so they have to use it twice and play it again during the credits).

New World Towers is an exercise in nostalgia which can’t bring itself to admit it. (There’s even a bit of Oasis banter thrown in there for good measure). The band members natter on about how they’ve known each other for bloody ages and what a wild ride they’ve been on all these years, but seem convinced that, because they’ve recorded a new album, they can’t possibly be indulging in nostalgia. The fact is, if Magic Whip was somewhat guilty of re-treading old ground, then this film needn’t bother going to trial. If you’re not absolutely convinced of your need to see this film, then you can more or less live the experience remotely by putting on a Best Of and picturing the following: Alex James, sat at his kitchen table next to a fuck-off bowl of wild spinach, grinning gamely at the camera and saying, “Get a bunch of cats who can really play…in a studio…and just let ‘em really go for it…”. It’s a kind of magic, just avoid the whip.

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