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Reach Exceeds Grasp In Pulp Documentary

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 17, 2014 4:00PM

Jarvis Cocker leads Pulp in performance (photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures).

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets aims to be three different things: a fan-friendly documentary about the British band Pulp and its final show of a recent reunion tour, a portrait of the eccentric side of Sheffield (the band's hometown), and a peek at growing into middle age and looking ahead to old age in the youth-driven world of pop/rock music.

That's a lot to cover in just 90 minutes and the film can't quite pull off the balancing act, though there are good moments in the attempt. The most interesting of its three themes is the last. With classic rock artists in their 70s still selling out arenas, the 50-somethings of Pulp hardly seem like old fogies. But the passing of time is clearly on the minds of band members, even as frontman Jarvis Cocker claims aging is simply an inevitability that he doesn't give much thought. The prominent placement of the band's song "Help the Aged" (written when they were still in their 30s) and a focus on middle-aged and older fans and Sheffield residents suggests otherwise.

Many of Cocker's lyrics center on sexuality (even some in "Help the Aged") and there's something compelling about a guy who gyrates and humps his amp on stage like an irony-infused Mick Jagger staring the inescapable finish line in the face. Keyboard player Candida Doyle also relates how she has suffered with arthritis since she was a teenager, and how living with what is viewed as an elderly condition for so long shaped her experiences with the band. And drummer Nick Banks got the band to sponsor his daughter's soccer team: a bit of middle-aged, middle-class normality that contrasts sharply with the image of the band at the height of their popularity in the mid-90s.

While the reflections on aging resonate, the depiction of Sheffield as a city of misfits seems a little forced. Director Florian Habicht certainly found some colorful interview subjects to make the case, but there seems to be a lot of mid-sized city ordinariness in the background of these quirky profiles. Even the venue hosting the band's tour finale—the Motorpoint Arena—looks like it could be swapped with the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates without either community noticing much difference.

As an artifact for fans, the movie also falls back on some of the mundane details too common in concert films. Shots of roadies setting up equipment or fans waiting eagerly outside for the show have become so familiar they act as filler. To be fair, Cocker's lyrics often contrast glamour with working class rituals, so the filmmakers were probably trying to mirror that.

Whatever structural failings the movie has, the music helps cover them. In the U.S., Pulp often is mentioned as almost an afterthought in the Britpop wave—third in line after Oasis and Blur, and maybe even fourth after Suede. But Pulp predates those groups by a few years and definitely has its own sound, distinct from any easy label or movement. They never had much U.S. chart success, but for a stretch were one of the biggest bands in England, and the concert footage and archival video used in the movie demonstrates why they had such an impact.

Despite its iffy construction, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets does seem admirably honest. Many fans still hold up Cocker as a sex symbol, but now sporting a professorial beard and thick-rimmed glasses, he seems bemused by that, and when he says he was never comfortable with fame, it seems sincere and not jaded rock star bullshit. Warts and all, the movie is a far more worthy document than a peacocking "confessional" like Madonna: Truth or Dare or an eye-roll worthy glorification like U2: Rattle & Hum. Unfocused as it is, the movie gives you something to chew on instead of the tasteless fodder so common in rock docs.

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets Directed by Florian Habicht. 90 mins. Plays Wednesday, Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre. It's also playing in most major markets across the country.