The Couch Surfer: 'No Distance isn't a music film – it's a love story with a killer soundtrack'
Tim Walker: 'The filmmakers had something Blur’s previous chroniclers did not: a completed narrative arc'
Monday 25 January 2010
Until last summer, the story of Blur had a melancholy ending.
The band's sad, messy disintegration was well documented, and its former members comfortably ensconced in new careers as solo artists, writers or aspiring politicians. Then, in late 2008, came the news that Blur would reform for a pair of vast, valedictory gigs in Hyde Park. Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, two young filmmakers with a history of Blur fandom, seized the opportunity to make No Distance Left to Run, a documentary that combines a tour diary with the history of the band's rise and fall and rise. If you haven't made it to one of the late-night cinema screenings, fear not – it's out on DVD next month.
No Distance is entirely about life inside Blur. There are no talking heads besides the band members. There's little of the music-historical context of Britpop documentary Live Forever, and even less of the political background of John Harris's Britpop book The Last Party. It's nothing like as warts-and-all as bassist Alex James's own memoir Bit of A Blur, which detailed more scientifically the sheer volume of drinking and shagging undertaken by the band in their pomp. But Southern and Lovelace have something that the band's previous chroniclers did not: the gift of a completed narrative arc. Their film is not so much a music documentary as a story of heterosexual male love rekindled, to a killer soundtrack.
After the first flush of success, superstardom weighed heavy on the four Essex boys. At their most famous, during the Great Escape years, they were also at their least happy. Frontman Damon Albarn had panic attacks, guitarist Graham Coxon was an alcoholic, drummer Dave Rowntree was in the throes of a horrid divorce, and Alex... well, Alex was in Fat Les. When relations between Damon and Graham broke down, the final Blur album, 2003's Think Tank, was recorded sans guitarist. The film's footage of the now-derelict Walthamstow Stadium – which provided album artwork and a launch venue for Parklife – mirrors the group's own dilapidation.
No Distance, however, has a final act, in which the band members reform, reforge their friendships, and play the last and best Blur gigs of their career, rendered here at a stunning, slow-motion 100 frames per second. As well as the music footage, there are some super archive finds, like the dressing room scene following a Modern Life Is Rubbish-era gig, in which Graham's burgeoning drink problem is apparent. Or the hilariously pretentious Goldsmith's student who represents everything Graham found "rubbish" about art school.
The documentarians tend to flaunt the access they've been afforded by making other journalists look a bit silly; one poor music hack points his dictaphone at the band and presents his conceit for a forthcoming article, drawing nothing but grunts and blank stares. Yet that access rarely reveals anything a committed Blurite doesn't know already: that Damon's disdain for American grunge gave birth to Britpop; that Graham's disdain for the term 'Britpop' and the teenyboppers it attracted gave birth to self-loathing.
Still, the characters shine through, providing some disarming low-key moments, like Damon being distracted by the looming visage of Will Self in the front row at a warm-up gig, or Graham checking there'll be "a couple of Crunchies" in the band's rider. Damon complains that wherever he went in 1996, people played Oasis on their stereos – which is actually pretty funny if you imagine it as a recurring sketch from The Fast Show. Dave, the quiet man of the bunch, charmingly describes his reverse mid-life crisis: "Most merchant bankers think they're wasting their life and why on Earth didn't they become a rock star. I decided what I was born to do was become a lawyer or an MP."
After a triumphant headline slot at the Glastonbury Festival, the cameras surreptitiously capture Damon overcome with emotion backstage. But Graham, who admits hiding from his bandmate after spotting him at London Zoo before their reconciliation, is the one you'll want to hug afterwards.
If you're not a massive Blur fan, No Distance may be of only passing interest. But, as last summer proved, there are still plenty of massive Blur fans out there. And this film, hagiographic as it is, well deserves to win over some new ones. Listening to those nostalgic echoes of "Tender", "Tracy Jacks", "Beetlebum" and "For Tomorrow" certainly sent me scurrying straight home to my CD collection.
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