Toronto 2013: All Is By My Side, We Are The Best!, Sunshine On Leith
Posted on Friday September 13, 2013, 13:28 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Now for a musical interlude. I didn't see Can A Song Save Your Life?, but seeing as Harvey Weinstein just paid $27m for it, I can only assume it can. Something I did make a bee-line for, however, was All Is By My Side, which didn't cause as much of a splash as I thought it might, being the second feature by John Ridley, screenwriter of Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave. Although it's a very, very low-budget endeavour, the film's limitations – which preclude the use of Hendrix's most famous music – play to its advantage, since Ridley eschews the usual biopic approach, instead taking a snapshot of 12 crucial months in the musician's life, three years before his death in 1970.
What surprised me most is how much attention Ridley plays to the British characters who moulded Hendrix's ideas and images. We first meet him in 1966 in a New York nightclub, where he is talent-spotted by model Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) playing guitar with jobbing R&B band Curtis Knight And The Squires. Being the girlfriend of The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, Linda knows a thing or two about rock'n'roll and sets about championing the diffident Jimi. Played by OutKast's Andre 3000, Hendrix is a quiet man, seemingly passive and somewhat naïve, especially when Linda makes plans to bring him to London. Once over the pond, however, Hendrix becomes much more complex, dumping the posh, upper-class Linda for the outspoken, working-class Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), the first sign that the nascent rock star is about to leave a trail of broken hearts.
Though the film has a slightly annoying habit of signposting its lookalikes – a scene involving a jealous Keith Richards is noticeably weak – Ridley's film does a very good job of recreating 60s Britain, with its pint pots and Woodbines (even though there's suspiciously little smoking). For an American, Ridley has a very good grasp of how much Hendrix absorbed in the UK; had he stayed in the States it's possible that Hendrix would never have happened as a solo artist, but in London he was given the space to grow, to transcend R&B and even colour. One of the film's best scenes has Hendrix visiting London's counterculture guru Michael X, who warns him against selling out and being co-opted by the white man's culture. Hendrix reacts with incredulity, being someone who lives so far outside the rules that Michael X's dogma seems equally as constraining.
Just how far Hendrix was willing to go is encapsulated in a lovely scene where he performs in front of The Beatles, extemporising a cover version of the title track from their Sgt Pepper album just two days after its release. That the film stops short of his legendary performance at Monterey Pop, never mind his death by overdose in 1970, is a sign of Ridley's fearlessness too. And although tragedy is never far from the frame, the director does strike a happy balance between drama and comedy, most of the latter coming from the plain-speaking Kathy, who does most of the talking for the taciturn musician. Facing down his manager during tryouts for his new band, it is she who reminds both him and us that “it's not The Two Pillocks And A Bloke From America Experience – it's The Jimi Hendrix Experience”. Despite its flaws, I liked this film a lot, and I hope it gets a release here.
Something that will definitely be getting a release here is the latest from Lukas Moodysson, the wayward Swedish director whose work has become somewhat dour of late. Thankfully, his latest, We Are The Best!, is a return to the form of his 2000 breakout hit Together, a lovely character piece about three young teenage girls, Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, who form a punk band in early-80s Stockholm. That 1982 is a bit late in the day to be forming a punk band is not lost on Moodysson, and the fact that he uses only music by the deadly earnest Swedish punk bands of the period creates a wonderful, hermetically sealed world for the girls to live in. What's especially good, however, is that none of Moodysson's recent political concerns creep in; there is little in the way of social comment, making this a truly innocent depiction of youth and friendship. It's playing as a gala at the London Film Festival, and all I can say is that the screening will be something special.
Another TIFF crowdpleaser was Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine On Leith (pictured), his follow-up to the magnificent Wild Bill. I will declare an interest here, or rather a lack of one, and say that the prospect of a musical that tells its story through a series of songs written by The Proclaimers was not something that had me jumping up and down with joyful anticipation. Nevertheless, the film has an easy charm that connected well at TIFF, and though I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Wild Bill – it's hard to relax when you know that the deeply irritating I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) is coming down the pipeline – Sunshine On Leith does share some of that film's warmth and atmosphere, being an inclusive, generously spirited ensemble piece that yet again features outstanding performances by up-and-coming actors.
It begins in Afghanistan, where Scottish lads Davy (George McKay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) are about to complete a tour of duty when a roadside bomb explodes outside their armoured car. Though they are uninjured physically, the pair are sent back home to Edinburgh, where they reconnect with their families and their partners – Liz (Freya Mavor) and Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) respectively. Surprisingly, the film's roots as a stage show don't really show, since Fletcher keeps the story moving at all times, cutting between the two couples and Davy's parents (Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan), who find their marriage tested when a long-hidden infidelity is revealed. And neither is the musical conceit as contrived as might be expected; in the first hour at least, with songs such as Over And Done With and Let's Get Married, the effect is even quite spontaneous, helped a lot by George Richmond's fluid cinematography, which really helps to pull us in.
The most distracting element of a musical based on songs from a single source, however, is that you start to realise which songs are being saved for last, and just as the sight of a gun in a thriller leaves you wondering when it will go off, so Liz's announcement that she wants to go and work in Florida sets up the cue for the last act's Letter From America. Likewise, it goes without saying which song the whole thing ends with. Fletcher has, however, made the best possible use of the material; all of his young cast are excellent, even if Guthrie is slightly underused, and Mullan adds a little old-school gravitas to the whole endeavour. The use of the actors' own singing voices reminded me a bit of Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart, which inverted the traditional style of musicals to create something more intimate and personal, and the commitment from the cast sees it through the brisk 90-minute running time. Whether you buy into it or not is simply a matter of taste; it's like being asked to dance to Come On Eileen at a wedding: you may not want to join in but a lot of people will – and they'll have a great time while it lasts.