Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets Dir. Florian Habicht

[Oscilloscope; 2014]

Styles: documentary, music,

Used johnnies, a souvenir ashtray brimming with lipstick coated fags, Stars on 45 LPs and Chinese Girl by Vladimir Tretchikoff. This is the world Jarvis Cocker and his band Pulp inhabited and, it now seems, memorialised. Their music, a knowing but affectionate fusion of high-60s camp, B-list glam and tacky synth flourishes, seems both prescient (predicting Ariel Pink and his followers at least ten years early) but also completely inconceivable in an era where pop is nothing more than the grimly functional soundtrack to a Wednesday night cocktail binge on the town. They made it impossible for anyone to follow them, and so remain the last word in British pop music.

Their hometown gig in 2012, the one that frames A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, will be the band’s last performance ever, but Florian Habicht’s documentary is not elegiac for that reason alone. Certainly, he’s documenting an end to an era, not just for this group of oddballs, but for a whole strain of arty, inventive British pop. As the film progresses, however, and the peculiar universe that formed Pulp is shaded in, it becomes clear the elegy is not for the band, but for the city that birthed it, Sheffield.

Once the heart of Britain’s steel industry, Sheffield’s future now lies in business parks and call centers. In depicting this graying world, Habicht takes his cues from Cocker, a lyricist preoccupied with intimations of decline. He manages to invests it with something of his own, though — an eerie otherness more evocative of Herzog than Britpop. The people he encounters — from a couple of bawdy old ladies shopping in the city market, to a garrulous newspaper vendor, whistling away in his stall like a forgotten music hall comic — are eccentric in their normality, offering a lived-in contrast to the corporate world encroaching on the pasts they lived through.

The director is at his best when drawing out this local color, but is less assured when it comes to the band. There’s a memorable sequence, late in the film, where the elderly patrons of a greasy spoon join in on an impromptu rendition of “Help the Aged.” Filmed proscenium arch style, it’s a singalong to rival the big arena gig. It’s also very obviously staged, which is not a bad thing as such, though it does suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of Pulp’s modus operandi. Habicht clearly remembers Common People’s rallying call against class tourism, but perhaps forgets “Mis-Shapes’s” similar assault on the boorish thuggery of a working class night out. Although Pulp’s best songs identified with the downtrodden, the band could be downright antagonistic towards the world they grew up in.

Habicht captures that charge in the concert footage, but mostly presents Cocker as a George Formby for the Britpop generation. With his name on the credits, it’s a view the man himself seems happy to endorse. Though he comes across as agreeably witty, it would’ve been nice to see a little of the fire that erupted in the absolute apex of his career, the oft-excised “like a dog lying in the corner” verse of “Common People.” Those words, delivered with maximum venom, were written and sung not just because he loved Sheffield, but also because he could hate it with a vengeance.

Habicht doesn’t grasp that, and the documentary hews to a superficial idea of Pulp and its frontman. For that reason, this couldn’t be mistaken for a penetrating account of the band’s life and times. What it is, though, is an interesting film about the decline and stunted renewal of a certain type of community. In Sheffield, he finds not the “Sex City” immortalized in an early hit, but a complicated place where life and death are intrinsically linked to the forces of multinational capitalism that lurk inside the blandly cheering communal space of the supermarket. If Jarvis and co were still around, they might render the horrible truth in more poetic fashion. As it is, this movie will have to do. It’s not perfect, but then perfection would be the worst kind of epitaph for Pulp.

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets screens November 13th at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.

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