Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets is the best film that could be made about Pulp. The majority of British pop bands were eager to be seen as “one of the lads,” with a pint in one hand and a copy of Loaded magazine in the other. Not Pulp, who wholeheartedly embraced an individualistic style of pervy proletariat, outsider chic. Their lyrics are the stuff of fluttering net curtains in run-down terraced houses, chaotic and confused teenage lust and not only not fitting in, but knowing you’ll never be able to. This documentary, centring on the band’s 2012 farewell concert, grasps everything that Pulp is about. It’s less a straightforward band biography and more a sociological study of the swamp of fears, loves and passions that bubbles away under the industrially cratered landscape of Sheffield.
That it captures this northern English atmosphere so perfectly is especially surprising considering that director Florian Habicht (a New Zealander) had never visited Sheffield before making the film. The music of Pulp had led him to believe that the city was a “warm, sexy place,” a romantic dream shattered almost as soon he stepped off the train. The reality is a bleak shell gutted by Thatcher and shafted by her ideological children. The Sheffield of this documentary is a decaying, frozen ruin. Habicht’s camera drinks in the gloom, taking us on a tour of boarded up brutalist housing projects, collapsed warehouses and rain-stained 1960s shopping centres in dire need of a council wrecking ball. All this under a slate grey Victorian sky and the biting chill of a northern December.
But Sheffield is merely a stage, it’s the actors that walk upon on it that are the real focus here. Habicht has a great eye for hunting down the most interesting inhabitants, as the film features a gallery of the funny-lookin’; a rather oddly faced girl drew giggles of surprise from the audience and a rotund, red-faced newspaper seller looks like he’s wandered in from a Charles Dickens adaptation. Fortunately, all these people are treated with dignity and crucially, Habicht treats everyone’s passions, opinions and lives with the utmost sincerity.
Most of these people feel like they’ve walked right out of Cocker’s songbook. A particular highlight is an extended chat with local musician Bomar and his girlfriend. The two bonded in a mental hospital over a shared love of serial killers and touchingly explain their shared love of music and the warm-hearted city they live in “where you’ll probably know your mugger, and be able to poke fun at him while he’s mugging you”. Everyone from the very young – two ten year olds just excited about the prospect of being in a film – to the very old are featured here.
It’s with the elderly that the film really reaches its zenith though. There’s an astonishing sequence where the Victoria Live at Home Singing Group perform an acoustic cover of Help the Aged in a greasy spoon cafe. With the chef plucking away on guitar in the background, the singers sing while reading the newspaper and eating their dinner. As waitress serves up bowls of chips, they hit the chorus: “In the meantime we try. / Try to forget that nothing lasts forever. / No big deal so give us all a feel. / Funny how it all falls away.” It’s a jaw-droppingly great bit of cinema, one that gave me a big old case of the shivers (as an addendum, it’s now been two months since I saw the film and this sequence is still on my mind).
Ageing is one of the central preoccupations of the documentary, appropriately so given that the band themselves are no spring chickens. There’s a refreshing normality as the band, who are pretty much indistinguishable from the general Sheffield populace, explain what fame entails with straightforward candour. Time has stripped them of their rockstar pretensions; for example, guitarist Mark Webber explains that at the height of Britpop he used to be intensely miserable while playing, staring out at the bouncing, happy audience and feeling like an utter fraud. Now, on reflection, he wryly admits that maybe playing music to thousands of adoring fans isn’t the worst feeling in the world.
For all the down to earth personableness of the band members, it’s Jarvis Cocker that stands out. At 50, he moves and talks with the confidence of someone finally happy within their own skin. Cocker is droll, deadpan figure, fixing the camera with an insouciant stare while recounting the pitfalls and peaks of being a musical superstar. His reserved off-stage persona is nicely contrasted with the footage of the central farewell gig, where he twists himself into an erotic human pretzel, thrashing his angular body about and dry humping the amps. He dances how men imagine they dance when no-one’s looking – all snarling attitude, curled lips and kinky sexual dynamism.
In the end it all comes down to Common People. Pulp, much moreso than their contemporaries, were a class conscious band. Sure, the Blur/Oasis rivalry was the epitome of middle vs. working class, but in terms of actual analysis, both ultimately came up short. Pulp (both band and movie) get it: class is an inescapable state of mind, something untethered to your bank balance, where you live and what you do. Class is knowing what “How it feels to live your life / With no meaning or control / And with nowhere left to go” means – and feeling your blood chill at the pinpoint accuracy of it. With lyrics like that, Pulp exist on precisely the same wavelength as their audience, something proven in the camaraderie that radiates from the smiling people of Sheffield as they watch their desires, fears and ambitions coalesce into the sexually charged lightning rod that is Jarvis Cocker.
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets is a magnificent documentary that fully understands its subject. The band are fascinating, the music is amazing and, at the centre of it all, the people of Sheffield make the city positively glow. This is everything a film about music should aspire to be.