There’s a section(by Lina Skaisgiryte) in the programme notes for this eagerly-anticipated film that really caught my eye: “At the heart of it, this documentary also explores a deep, dark fear: the fear of not making a mark on the world, the fear of being forgotten.” And there, in the second half, as Director Matt Reid is talking to Lead Singer Justin Sullivan on the stoop outside Sawmills studios, it emerges. Sullivan has been describing the rich vein of form the band has found itself in, and the urge to take advantage of this moment, to record again as soon as possible.
Reid: “Are you worried that the time is running out ?”
Sullivan: “Yes. Yes.”
There’s a happy note to be struck, however, in that the associated album is NMA’s most successful for years. Sullivan’s worry about his future creativity and music sits against an apparent ease with the haziness, or disappearance, of the past. Standing in the burnt-out shell of their studios in 2011 he professes an acceptance of the loss of so many things. He reflects that it’s good to have the chance to rebuild, to feel unencumbered by the weight of what’s gone before. For the record, I’m not sure I completely believe him.
I am sure that Sullivan finds it easier to dispense with his history than many. And I think this is because he has that fear of time running out. Given that fear, small surprise that he puts his energies into what is happening in the here and now, and making the most of the fertile ground currently being broken by NMA. But that isn’t the whole story; in another candid moment outside Sawmills, he confesses to feeling strong, passionate anger regarding the end of his collaboration with, and the death of, drummer Robert Heaton. In looking forwards, maybe he hasn’t been able properly to come to terms with such a deep, desperate bereavement. I wonder if he is also happy for the past to be gone not because he finds it easy to let it go, but because it means he can’t see just how much there is behind him, how much time he has already had. As he puts it, although he could be in Cornwall reminiscing about former glories, “all [he] can see is corpses.”
I found it telling that the story essentially jumped from ‘Impurity’ to the new album. Having covered the first decade of the band in such depth it was understandable that Reid skipped over a large chunk of the band’s history. ‘More of the same’, in the sense of the band ploughing its own idiosyncratic furrow, and confounding expectations all over, wasn’t going to make for a very interesting film. Instead, Reid eschews normal practice – cover everything, and in detail – and focuses us on the big moments.
There’s fascinating footage, twinned with dry, wry commentary from the band, fans, and associates. We get to see them on Top Of The Pops and experience the full disconnect of such an experience. We see Sullivan meeting ex-producer Glyn Johns and there is wonderful sparring between them – Sullivan humbly acknowledging that almost everything Johns suggested made them sound better, while his own ideas mostly didn’t. It’s also worth acknowledging that Reid doesn’t shy away from divisive subjects such as the way in which many fans feel about the role of Sullivan’s partner Joolz Denby (and the fraught relationships between her and other band members), and the fact that NMA’s love of clogs has diminished considerably over the years.
It’s a fine, authoritative piece of work that, much like NMA, doesn’t stick to the rules. It feels natural, perhaps the way in which Sullivan might tell the story himself if asked to do so. Instead of trying slavishly to recreate a history it tells the tale complete with digressions, jokes, feelings, a sense of still being connected to real people’s lives, and there’s little if any prattling on about ‘the art’ or the songwriting process. I won’t give away the ending because it’s such a perfect touch. One thing you must know is that the audience, many of whom were clearly long-time NMA fans, gave this picture a hearty round of applause when it finished. It’s not a very British thing to do in the cinema, as the compere found when he tried to get the same audience to whoop and holler as he announced the screening. But they did it anyway, brought out of themselves by this very human exploration of the achievements and wide-ranging appeal of an undefinable band. Bravo.
Check the band’s website, www.newmodelarmy.org, for details of further screenings.