The cinema release of Morrissey 25: Live, a concert film of the former Smiths singer's intimate gig at LA's 1,800-capacity Hollywood High School, was intended as a celebration of his quarter-century of solo stardom. But it arrives with him seemingly on the ropes, beaten to them by a series of body-blows.
Shortly after the performance on 2 March this year, which the film captures, Morrissey cancelled the remaining dates of his US tour, hospitalised on an IV-drip with double-pneumonia, the culmination of recent ailments including a bleeding ulcer, anaemia and the throat illness Barrett's oesophagus. The 22 cancelled US gigs were joined last month by a South American tour axed due to "lack of funding".
Still insisting on the sort of 1990s record deal which would have subsidised that South American jaunt, but no longer exists in an imploding music industry, he has been without a label for some time. His last album was the aptly titled Years of Refusal in 2009. Morrissey refuses to adapt to a chilly new world in which he has lesser status, but has run up against the reality that he can't survive on his own. "The future," he concluded on the fan site True to You with characteristic fatalism, "is suddenly absent."
This would be more alarming if Morrissey hadn't been here before. His flop 1997 album, Maladjusted, was followed by seven years of record label exile he knew was coming even before its release, explaining to an interviewer: "I'm box office poison… Once the tide turns, it turns. And unless the wind is in your sails, there's very little you can do." He responded to the depressed period which followed by moving to LA to live like Sunset Boulevard's forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, taking pot-shots at short-sighted record labels till a triumphant comeback with 2004's You Are the Quarry. After a move to Rome and the Ringleader of the Tormentors album, Years of Refusal saw that return's energy dissipate.
The reasons were frankly admitted in several songs on Maladjusted, especially "Ammunition", a defiant confession of his thematic limitations. While his 1980s contemporary Elvis Costello stretched his creativity past its limits into jazz and classical music, Morrissey's talent has stayed circumscribed by its interest in the witty description of his own despair and loneliness, and regressed from the similar subject of The Smiths by losing their songs' healing, communal connection to an adolescent generation. That has been replaced by a deepening, resourcefully amusing solipsism. "I don't dwell on the things I'm missing," he sings on "Ammunition" of this familiar lyrical landscape, "I'm just pleased with the things I've found."
An artist who has to dance on the head of a pin, though, will always outstay his welcome. The self-exile from the spotlight his recent sickness and statements suggest, as with the long disappearance which began in 1997, may be needed to make us want him again.
If he is leaving the stage, Morrissey 25: Live is an unsatisfactory if revealing curtain call. A new song, "Action Is My Middle Name", deals partly with death, with the urgent attack of a man living his remaining life to the full. The fascination of the film isn't in the often exciting show, though, but the fans' reaction to it. Their faces and hands reach up to him, till they finally hurl themselves at the stage in kamikaze efforts to touch their idol. This relationship is given overly self-conscious form as Morrissey hands the microphone to devotees, so they can express how, as one says, "You make my life complete."
The fierceness of one fan's face as he stares at the stage, flushed with intense, nameless emotion, says much more. So does Morrissey as he sinks to his knees, back turned to the crowd to watch slaughterhouse footage during an at first prayerfully quiet "Meat Is Murder". His equation of human and animal life can be another example of his insensitive solipsism, most infamously when, immediately after Anders Breivik's mass killing in Norway, he said on stage that the 77 dead were "nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried shit every day".
His role as a sort of rock Prince Philip, putting his foot in his mouth on subjects such as this and immigration, has been another reason for old fans abhorring him. But his insistence on social meaning in shows which aren't just entertainment is a reminder of rock's ambition.
Morrissey 25: Live is finally a document of Morrissey as a star – in his fans' intelligent, consuming obsession with him, perhaps rock's last. Having been a fervent teenage admirer of the New York Dolls and Patti Smith, he has made himself a worthy object of such adoration.
Away from the cameras at Hollywood High, I saw the strength of this at a 2011 gig at Brixton Academy in London. The fervid restlessness of the crowd was unique among current rock shows, and masterfully orchestrated by a Morrissey who desired and deserved it. All his faults, limitations and cancelled engagements can't take that away. As he chides on Years of Refusal's "All You Need Is Me": "You're going to miss me when I'm gone."
'Morrissey 25: Live' is in selected cinemas now (www.morrissey25live.com)
STANDING-ROOM ONLY: 10 INTIMATE SHOWS
U2 Astoria, London, 7 February 2001
Paul McCartney Cavern Club, Liverpool, 14 December 1999
Rolling Stones 100 Club, London, 31 May 1982
Bob Dylan Toad's Place, New Haven, Connecticut, 12 January 1990
Blur East Anglian Railway Museum, Colchester, 13 June 2009
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Moody Theater, Austin, Texas, 15 March 2012
Oasis Roundhouse, London, 21 July 2009
Eminem Islington Academy, London, 20 November 2004
Radiohead 93 Feet East, London, 16 January 2008
Lady Gaga Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 5 January 2011
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine