Tuesday, 16 October 2012

London Film Festival: Spike Island (d. Mat Whitecross)

Although a bit older than the main characters in Spike Island, I was also a Stone Roses fan in 1990, putting in the hours loitering around Affleck's Palace and seldom parted from the Waterfall t-shirt I got from Piccadilly Records. So maybe this was going to be the film for me…

Written by actor Chris Coghill (who has a supporting role here and played Bez in 24-Hour Party People) and directed by Mat Whitecross, the film focuses on five Manchester lads who are prepared to do whatever's necessary to get into the Roses' now legendary gig on the contaminated bank of the Mersey. As members of a band (Shadow Caster), they're also desperate to get their demo tape into the hands of their musical heroes.

However, as you'd expect, they've got to contend with The Man putting them down and a certain amount of tick-the-box personal baggage, from a dying father to, erm, a bullying father. 

The script is generally OK, sketching out the characters in just enough detail and providing a few Inbetweeners/Shameless-style funnies. Actually, there are probably more jokes than I registered, but sadly quite a bit of the dialogue disappears into the murky sound mix – especially when the lads are on the road.

The biggest eye-roller is the degree to which it unquestioningly swallows its "the kids are alright" theme. The Manc swagger act had become a laughable self-parody even before Richard Ashcroft (from Wigan) buried it in the 'Bittersweet Symphony' video; the film would have offered an interesting opportunity to have a look what goes on behind all that front.

(I always think films like this should have a present-day coda in which the adult versions of the characters cringe at what tiresome little scrotes they were – like every single generation of 16-year-olds before or since.)

The young cast work pretty well, with Elliott Tittensor (Shameless) holding centre stage as band frontman and leader of the gang Tits. Nico Mirallegro provides the best support as Dodge, the slightly dim but fully committed musical driving force in the band.

The core group is surrounded by a talented group of supporting actors, although, given the film's focus on youth, we don't get to see enough of Steve Evets as Tits' terminally ill dad or the wonderfully wounded Lesley Manville as his careworn mum.

The age and place are evoked pretty well (although some of the budget-restricted art direction is a bit Life on Mars) and the film is nicely shot. It fully bursts into life during two brilliantly edited gig scenes that display Whitecross's music video chops – particularly the first, featuring Shadow Caster's local rivals The Palaver in a local pub.

The other provides a stirring climax to the Spike Island gig sequence - and that stage of the lads' lives - as as a change in the direction of the wind brings 'I Am the Resurrection' surging over the perimeter walls to the excluded fans outside.

Despite a few shortcomings, the script thankfully holds back from anything like a fairy-tale ending; the band breaks up, the next generation moves into the makeshift recording studio and the lads from the Redbricks estate face an uncertain journey into adulthood. So it goes.

Spike Island hits a few predictable yoof-drama notes, but it's not a bad film. However, with its themes of youthful frustration and male friendship, it's hard not to wonder what a filmmaker like Shane Meadows (who's working on a doc about the Stone Roses reunion) would have made of the story*.

But despite its imperfections and rosy-tinted viewpoint, Spike Island still offers a powerful reminder of how and why we fall in love with pop music at the time in our lives when we don't have much else.

* Actually, having said that, This is England 1990 will probably cover fairly similar ground...

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