|Strummer: The Future is Unwritten|
courtesy Dendy Films
Hoffman takes the stage, scruffy and retiring; it’s hard not to position him as a character in exile, even now. He chooses to screen Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier’s sensual evocation of a jazz muso past his prime, battling alcoholism in a seedy hotel in Paris. He talks of directing his own ageing rockers in Riflemind (harnessing various circular character ‘needs’), about the difference between acting for the stage and screen (not much, just flexing different muscles). As Upton punctuates Hoffman’s silences with his own staccato style, the ghost of Cate Blanchett—Hoffman’s female equivalent in terms of taking on multi-faceted roles, and Upton’s wife—seems to hover offstage, directing from the wings.
I admit it. I bought a ticket to Riflemind because Hoffman was directing and Hugo Weaving was starring. I have struggled with theatre for many years. It doesn’t grab me like film does. Often as soon as the opening words are uttered I groan inwardly; if there’s a fake American accent, that’s it, I’m down for the count. If there’s a film connection I take the chance. And if there’s star power, I’m drawn in. Call me shallow. There’s something about being in the same physical space with a face you’ve seen up close for hours on the big screen. When I think about it, I’ve probably spent, adding up all his titles, 20 hours with Hoffman in an intimate space. Hugo Weaving, probably more.
Riflemind is like The Big Chill for rock musos. An 80s band decides to think about re-forming (and reforming too), meeting in a mansion on the outskirts of a UK village, arriving by helicopter. It’s not Kevin Costner (yes, he played the corpse in the film) but there’s something dead in the water. Revolving around a simple set—a long benchtop kitchen and fridge, a couch near a stereo, a Mark Rothko painting—band members John (Hugo Weaving), Phil (the always charismatic Marton Csokas), Moon (Steve Rodgers), a young upstart from the States, Lee (Ewen Leslie—yep, there’s that ‘American’ accent), the band’s manager Sam (Jeremy Sims) and two girlfriends Cindy (the one with a history, Susie Porter) and Lynn (a new recruit but battling addictions of her own, Susan Prior), fire mis-timed missiles at each other.
In the Q+A with Hoffman, Upton was pretty harsh about Metallica (the subject of the 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster) and the band’s fans, talking in a derogatory way about their music being ‘crap’, and in the same way, he seems to despise his own characters. While we skim the surface of their despair, addictions and tenuous familial threads, we remain as disconnected as the lot of them. There’s some humour to relieve us (Jeremy Sims hams it up as a Rod Stewart-like pompous git and, damn, another fake accent) but you’ve got to wonder what Susie Porter saw in the role, other than I guess working with Hoffman. Cindy (shortened to ‘Cin’) goes from bleached to raw—yes, she’s sucked a lot of dick to get where she is, we get it. Vanilla ice layers of cliche, punctuated by the stub-stub-stubbing of cigarettes. Apart from Weaving’s opening monologue, a taut rhythmic tongue-play around the construction of a lyric, there’s no real sense of the music, beyond the occasional scene change effect of strobe-lighting with a rapid fire chunky guitar (Peter Black and Raymond Ahn from the Hard Ons) that makes my neighbour lean forward in her seat as if she’s been shot.
You don’t have to go much further than your local RSL to see real-life examples of these bands and we’re talking further back than the 80s. There’s a re-forming revolution going on. I used to cast scorn on my parents’ generation, queuing up for Countdown rerun concerts where even the band couldn’t get it together (see Katrina from Katrina and the Waves!), doing the stomp with knobbly knees to Eagle Rock (yep, those boys are back in town too, and on Sunrise). But then suddenly it was my teenage past that was coming back to haunt me at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. The Cure. Duran Duran. Psychedelic Furs. Hoodoo Gurus. Suddenly the past didn’t seem like that long ago, especially with current teenagers wearing the same clothes I did; bubble skirts and smock frocks were bad then and nothing’s changed. I knew I was heading down a slippery slope when I saw Violent Femmes at the Revesby Workers Club last year and stood on the perimeter of the dance floor with lots of bald, middle-aged accountants, screaming “day after day, I get angry, and I will say, that the day, is in my sight, when I’ll take a bow, and say goodnight.
film & rock
Filmmakers have also been riding the crest of this wave, fascinated with the idea of washed-up rockers giving it another go. The tour de force Some Kind of Monster—which Hoffman screened to his cast early in the rehearsal process—reveals the inner workings of a band, Metallica, who have reached their peak and are coming down the other side, the psychologising and gameplay that goes on to bring out a new album, and the strain to just keep on keeping on, battling 20-year-old habits and wives who expect more now they have children. The doco also deftly gets into the heads of the hangers-on, particularly the band’s somewhat delusional psychologist, who begins to see himself as an essential part of the band, unable to acknowledge his own co-dependency. Popular hits like Music and Lyrics, with Hugh Grant, and the Australian BoyTown, with Glenn Robbins and Mick Malloy, play with Riflemind’s themes in a comic way, making the most of bad 80s haircuts and worn-out dance routines.
strummer: the future is unwritten
The best of these films is Julien Temple’s passionate unearthing of an era in Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. This tender documentary has a cohesion often lacking in films where the protagonist is no longer with us. The film makes Joe Strummer breathe, in contrast to Riflemind, where the band is stifled and suffocating. At the Q+A, Upton said his play was influenced by Chekhovian rhythms, and yes, the characters seem trapped by their own inertia, their sense of ennui—but is that because Upton himself doesn’t quite know where to take them? Temple doesn’t have the same problem but of course he’s guided by the meandering narrative of a known musician who was frontman of The Clash. There are a million ways to approach the contradictory forces in Strummer’s life and he shapes the doco beautifully by interviewing family and friends, framed in front of a raging bonfire at night, the soft focus of flames encouraging spontaneous bursts of Clash songs. A radio broadcast—London Calling—acts as scaffolding, holding the narrative up, while it interweaves Strummer’s eclectic taste in music from around the globe with his captured archival history as a diplomat’s son in Iran, Malawi and Mexico.
What the doco manages, and where the play struggles, is to get into the complex yearnings of men who’ve had it all (fame, money, girls, drugs, success) and lost it. Temple has always been into punk. In the 70s he was one of the first to film the Sex Pistols and The Clash. He became a close friend of Strummer’s in the years before his death. In the film, over 25 years, Joe Strummer re-emerges in a series of identities, from rebel to hippie to punk back to hippie, shedding his slippery snake skin when it no longer fits. The band members in Riflemind seem trapped behind glass, like oddities in a museum with strap-on instruments, but then they are only captured at one moment in time. Perhaps the difference in what’s offered to the audience is that Temple comes to the subject as a passionate fan of the music first, while Upton seems more interested in what happens when the music dies.
Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, director Julien Temple, producer Amanda Temple, currently screening nationally, www.joestrummerthemovie.com
Riflemind, director Philip Seymour Hoffman, writer Andrew Upton, performers Marton Csokas, Ewen Leslie, Susie Porter, Susan Prior, Steve Rodgers, Jeremy Sims, Hugo Weaving, design Richard Roberts, lighting Damien Cooper, costumes Tess Schofield; Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Oct 5-Dec 10
RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 17
© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org