Pulp screens Wednesday in Sound + Vision 2014 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
“So, what, you're trying to get a snapshot of Sheffield? Like, the hopes and dreams of the common man?” asks Bomar, a musician, former mental patient, and Sheffield resident who dresses like a thriftier, glam-era Brian Eno. This question cum reflexive critique, casually dropped in the middle of his interview with director Florian Habicht, is delivered in a wry, leisurely manner not unlike that of Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker. These and other moments from man-on-the-street portraits of random Sheffieldians hint that Pulp’s savvy sensibility and worldly wise lyrics aren’t the exception but the rule in this former steel mining town. Even those who aren’t familiar with the band—some kids playing in their front garden, two old ladies at a supermarket, an elderly knife maker—respond to something about Pulp’s music, in ways that aren’t always obvious. After hearing for the first time “Disco 2000”—a song released in 1995 in which a single mom’s childhood sweetheart proposes they hook up in the futuristic year of 2000—a young girl remarks: “The name is really different . . . The song is really exciting. It would really get someone moving on the dance floor.”
The dedicated fans waiting outside of Pulp’s final reunion tour show in Sheffield, decked out in underpants that say “Jarvis” on the back in glittery purple letters, wouldn’t disagree with that fumbling sentiment. But as the full title of the film—Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets—makes clear, this isn’t just a documentary focused on a band, an attitude, a feeling, or a place. Rather, Habicht attempts to engage with all of these elements simultaneously, approximating the experience of listening to music. Susanne K. Langer noted the complexity of these interactions in Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art:
“The tonal structures we call ‘music’ bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling—forms of growth and attenuation, flowing and slowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm or subtle activation or dreamy lapses—not joy and sorrow perhaps, but the poignancy of both—the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt. Such the same form worked out in pure measures, sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.”
Music is something that forces us to feel not something, but many things simultaneously. A large part of the power of film comes from the ability to marry music and image, and even the most cloying score or pop track can give power to an otherwise limp or silly scene. By genuinely embracing the richness of music, Habicht avoids the clichés and hagiography of nearly every other music documentary. There are people in this world who are excited by Pulp in a way that nothing else can compare, and there are, in fact, those who live rich and fulfilling lives without ever having heard one of their songs.
We also see a handful of unlikely and eerily astute covers of Pulp hits: a teen dance troupe interpreting “Disco 2000,” an all-female a capella group’s cover of “Common People,” and a coterie of blue-hairs in an old folks’ home singing “Help the Aged” while browsing through magazines. In another context, these performances would be seen as merely ironic or sad; here, they enrich the overall understanding of what the band, and by extension, their music is about. Although most of the band’s songs fit into the Nineties alternative music cliché of loud-quiet-loud, their melodies and instrumentation are equal parts new wave, disco, John Barry, and Serge Gainsbourg. But what truly makes the band special are their lyrics, which are often a collection of anecdotes that form to tell a larger story. Their most baroque songs, some of which are featured in Pulp, have unreliable and sex-obsessed male narrators (“I Spy,” “Babies,” “This Is Hardcore,” or “A Little Soul”), but others focus on the smaller indignities of life that crescendo into battle cries: rich kids trying to slum it (“Common People”), social misfits (“Mis-shapes”), or a letter to a terrible ex (“Bad Cover Version,” “Razzmatazz”).
Die-hard Pulp fans have plenty to sink their teeth into: the old and new performances, backstage footage, and talking-head interviews with Cocker, Nick Banks, Candida Doyle, Richard Hawley, Steve Mackey, and Mark Webber are engrossing enough to stand on their own. (The film opens with a live performance of “Common People,” the band’s most famous song, which effectively gets it out of the way.) The interpersonal dynamics, musical techniques, or fears that any particular band member talks about blessedly never get too heavy here, whether the conversations touch on fame, misogyny, drugs, failed past attempts at bombastic stage shows, or who really did do the washing up. Anything else wouldn’t be truthful to a band who got a hit out of a song containing the reality-checking lyric: “The future that you've got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.”