SXSW: Fresh Pulp

Pulp's Jarvis Cocker (courtesy of Rough Trade)

When the Britpop movement came to the fore in the 1990s, the battle for supremacy was cast as a contest between Blur and Oasis—Blur's Damon Albarn looking at England through college lenses or Oasis's Noel Gallagher looking at the nation through pub mugs. But the correct answer was: none of the above. The Britpop band whose music is most impressive today, two decades later, is Pulp. And now there's even more evidence for that conclusion in the form of a documentary movie Pulp, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Conference Sunday evening. The picture centers on the group's 2012 reunion concert in their hometown of Sheffield, and New Zealand director Florian Habicht focuses on Pulp's close connection to that fading, industrial, northern-England city (the UK equivalent of Buffalo, say). Habicht suggests that the band's peculiar blend of weirdness and groundedness is rooted in that bond. The movie shows drummer Nick Banks coaching his daughter's soccer team and keyboardist Candida Doyle struggling with arthritis in a modest apartment. Habicht interviews a double-necked man inside a newspaper kiosk and a silver-haired woman on a city sidewalk bench, and they not only quote Pulp lyrics but analyze them as well. The film opens with a live version of the UK hit single, "Common People," the booming, infectious anthem that quotes a rich girl saying, "I want to live like common people … I want to sleep with common people." Habicht asks guitarist Mark Webber if he's one of the common people, and he readily assents. What about Jarvis Cocker, the band's chief songwriter and lead singer, is he a common person? Webber hesitates, then smiles and says, "He's got potential." Cocker, with his black-frame, nerdy glasses, spastic dancing and scruffy beard, is not a typical working-class bloke, but his songs are full of yearning—both musical and verbal—for the typical bloke pleasures of sex, family, and camaraderie. He's willing to defend those blokes he grew up with, even if he can never fulfill his wish to be one of them. That's why he connects so well with Sheffield's working-class audience: they want the freedom celebrity has given him, and he wants their everyday satisfactions. During the concert footage, you can see Cocker standing on the monitors, beseeching the crowd to join him. And you can see many of the listeners mouthing the lyrics to the verses as well as the choruses. Pulp's special chemistry is the result of four pub-rock musicians working with an eccentric bohemian who can explore Sheffield life as an affectionate outsider. The filmmaker finds inventive ways to dramatize this bond between Cocker and his hometown. Habicht has the Sheffield Harmony, an a cappella chorus of middle-aged women, sing their own version of "Common People." A multi-racial, teenage dance group, U-Nique, develops a dance routine for the same song. A local librarian reads the lyrics to "Help the Aged" from a book, and then a senior citizen's home croons the same number. These interludes prove that the songs have catchy-enough melodies and universal-enough stories to thrive in any setting. And when these tunes are played by an expanded version of the group (including the Boxettes as harmony singers, the Waco Brothers' Jean Cook as fiddler, and the Longpigs' Richard Hawley as guitarist), they acquire a percussive force that makes them the best remains of the Britpop moment. Cocker was on hand at the Austin Convention Center to answer questions about the documentary. When someone asked why Sheffield had produced so many memorable musicians, Cocker replied, "When there's nothing to do, you have to do something."

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