Reel Sounds Vol. 5: Electrophonique, Hargrove And More At Doc ‘N’ Roll 2022

Combing through the vast array of music documentaries showcasing independent talent, Neil Fox previews this year's Doc 'N' Roll festival

As Brett Morgen’s love letter to David Bowie, Moonage Daydream, continues to keep high profile music films in the cinematic and cultural conversation, the under-valued Doc ’n’ Roll Festival returns to cinema screens around the UK to try and keep music films at the independent end of the spectrum in focus. One of the most exciting aspects of covering the festival each year is the continual thrill regarding the quality of films they unearth, the breadth of subjects getting the cinematic portrait treatment and the varying approaches to form many of the films undertake.

One of my most highly anticipated titles, A Film About Studio Electrophonique didn’t disappoint. The film, a collaboration between director James Taylor and musician James Leesley, is a really charming film that unearths an important part of regional British music history. Leesley, who records music under the name Studio Electrophonique (in tribute to the home studio in Sheffield of the same name that was pivotal in the early years of so many iconic bands including Pulp, ABC and the Human League) is at the centre of the film. He, in constant conversation with Taylor behind the camera, sets out to discover the story of the studio, its fabled owner Ken Patten, and the music that was birthed in the extension of a small, working-class suburban home.

The film’s charm comes from Leesley and his genuine love and curiosity for the music, Sheffield and its people. Everyone he encounters, in terms of musicians as much as Ken’s friends and family, gets the same respect and focus. The lo-fi camerawork and intimate access to the everyday homes and lives of local people whose understanding of the impact of Ken’s work varies wildly, and recalls the beguiling affability of the TV show Most Haunted with both sharing a snark-free engagement with the clash of the weird and the normal in British culture. The film benefits from access to Ken’s personal super 8mm home movie archive and reaches a moving apogee when Leesley, as Studio Electrophonique, provides a score to Patten’s private films. It paints a sweet portrait of an unassuming man who created, in his house, this strange space where some of the most striking and diverse sounds in British pop emerged from the most unassuming environment imaginable.

Strangeness abounds in the short film Moonbathing in February, Niall Trask’s freeform portrait of the Fat White Family as they seek to record a new record. Finally receiving big screen outings, the film is a strong audio/visual accompaniment to the recent celebrated book Ten Thousand Apologies by bandleader Lias Saoudi (with Adelle Stripe), who is also at the forefront of this film, in showing the imagination and creative ambition of a band who fall outside the glare of the mainstream and the reduction in precariousness, both financial and emotional, that association can bring. The film, in its brief screen time, captures some of the absurdity, surrealism and tension of the undertaking of making music for a largely indifferent and fragmented public. But it is also full of humour, self-deprecating nods to other films about the creative process of music making (most notably the masterful Nick Cave portrait 20,000 Days on Earth with which it shares a South Coast locale and affinity), and an immediacy that makes the music being written feel as if conjured on the spot, for the purpose of the film more than anything else.

A personal engagement in the filmmaking process on the part of subjects and participants is evident in many of the films previewed here. Those mentioned so far feel like genuine collaborations between those in front of and behind the camera. Lilly Creightmore’s Trip: A Journey Into the World of Psychedelic Sight & Sound feels similarly personal but uses that spark to adopt a more traditional documentary approach. A fan of contemporary psych rock, Creightmore was invited on tour with her friends The Black Angels as they toured as psych pioneer Roky Erickson’s backing band in 2008. Creightmore unearths the footage and revisits it, seeking to get under the skin of a genre that rarely veers close to the charts but naggingly refuses to disappear, like so many sub-genres.

If she’s unsuccessful ultimately in this goal, she succeeds in creating a portrait of a real community of musicians whose work ethic and sense of collegiality goes some way to underscore the music’s longevity and ability to recur in various incarnations. A mixture of interviews and archive footage, with Creightmore herself narrating, the film features some fantastic live clips of bands including the Black Angels, The Warlocks, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and a short but (bittersweet) reunion in 2010 of Spacemen 3 as Sonic Boom and J. Spaceman share a rare moment together on stage. There are also hints of a different, more expansive film in moments with female psych rock luminaries including Tess Parks and artists from non-American locales including Night Beats, but they never detract from Creightmore’s achievement of an insightful film about a persistent area of rock music and the influence on contemporary purveyors, such as Ty Segall and John Dwyer, and his various Osees incarnations can certainly be felt.

Elsewhere, there are interesting titles looking at genres and artists including Australian punk, new romantics, Detroit Techno and apartheid-era South Africa musical resistance. Doc ’n’ Roll’s commitment to ensuring that diverse voices on screen and behind the camera are represented remains impressive. Two films about Black artists bizarrely share an almost identical opening sequence. As Jessamyn Ansary and Joyce Mishaan’s portrait Lee Fields: Faithful Man gets underway, Fields is shown preparing pre-show in his hotel room, ironing his suit, before walking to the night’s venue unaccompanied. The sequence acts as a statement for the film, underlining the exemplary work ethic and humility of the story’s subject, a man who worked for decades to have a sustainable music career and who is never complacent about the precariousness of such an achievement later in his life.

The film takes a traditional approach formally, utilising archive footage, interviews, live material and reconstructions well, and is elevated by Fields as a narrator of his own tale. He is matter of fact, reflective but not prone to over-elaboration, and keen to extend credit for his success to his wife, Christine. The film also uses Fields’ platform to generously showcase other Black musicians for whom the vagaries of success have proven elusive, namely The Soul of Soul Singers. The film feels akin to the Leo ‘Bud’ Welch portrait Late Blossom Blues from 2017 and Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! about the much-missed soul singer Sharon Jones, from 2015. Jones appears here as she sang on some of Fields’ comeback recordings, in footage that feels bittersweet but enlightening to witness.

In Eliane Henri’s Hargrove, trumpeter Roy Hargrove is heard playing his trumpet in his hotel room before being revealed as perched on the windowsill overlooking an Italian city, before strolling, unaccompanied like Fields, to the venue on foot. There are other similarities between the two films in terms of telling the story of important, individual Black musicians who maybe haven’t got their dues, but there are significant differences that mark Henri’s film and make it maybe the highlight of the Doc ’n’ Roll programme. Henri, similarly to Creigtmore on her psych odyssey, has access to Hargrove through long-term friendship, but the collaboration with those around the musician is less cordial and fully on show as Henri captures the sometimes abrasive and unsettling relationship between her as the filmmaker, Hargrove’s manager and in the middle, Hargrove himself. As a film that highlights some of the unspoken inequities and exploitations of popular music as a profession, the film feels significant. Hargrove’s manager, the prickly Larry ‘Ragman’ Clothier, appears in the film and allowed some intimate conversations to be shared, but as the arbiter of Hargrove’s estate he didn’t allow any of the musician’s original music to be shared in the film.

It’s something Hargrove couldn’t stand up for his filmmaking friend about, because he died in 2018 of kidney failure and a heart attack, not long after finishing the European tour Henri documents so beautifully here. The film’s focus in part on Hargrove’s illness (he was on dialysis for many years and it’s a necessary part of touring that he received treatment every couple of days) carries a heavy weight given what happened to him shortly after being interviewed about death, dying and the inability to receive a transplant due to the demands of staying economically afloat through touring. In one of many insightful and emotional interviews, his friend and peer trombonist Frank Lacy, places much of the blame on Hargrove’s manager in an emotionally charged tirade about financial planning and mismanagement. Hargrove’s death gives the film a rawness, and the contributions from Lacy and others including Questlove, Yasiin Bey and executive producer Erykah Badu, have a sharp poignancy and an urgency in sharing Hargrove with the world.

The importance of Hargove to jazz and contemporary Black music is a key part of the film’s message, and there is the sense that this was the film’s raison d’être prior to his death, using the platform of a film to shine a light on not only a pioneer of contemporary jazz but one whose influence on hip-hop has gone undervalued until now. Henri never loses sight of the expectations of her as a director, making a moving but never sanctimonious work. Hargrove’s flaws are presented alongside his virtues and the film becomes a fascinating and searing portrait of labour, struggle and independence. Many music films try to share what makes their under-appreciated subjects worth investing time and money in, but few do it with the power and grace of Hargove, a film that manages to make the case for its subject in ways that make the immediate heading of audiences to record shops (or streaming services, I guess) inevitable. It’s just a shame he won’t be alive to reap the benefits of that and this beautiful film, and that those proceeds will go into the pockets of a manager who couldn’t see how the film (and arguably his pockets) would have benefited from the inclusion of the music the film orbits around. No matter, such was Hargrove’s talent and joy of playing. The man was special.

This year’s edition of Doc ‘N’ Roll runs from October 27 to November 13.

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