The sign says Spike Island was the "birthplace of the British chemical industry". Well, that's one way of putting it. For any music fan, the Widnes wildlife haven is synonymous with a more recent event: May 27, 1990, when The Stone Roses played their near-mythical gig to 27,000 fans. A genuine "were you there?" moment, arriving just a year after the band's seminal self-titled debut album, it was the pinnacle of the "Madchester" music scene that spawned such generation-defining bands as Happy Mondays and The Charlatans.
Today, director Mat Whitecross (who previously brought us Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) is trying to recreate that glorious day for his film Spike Island. "People describe it as a baggy Woodstock," he says. "If you talk to anyone from Manchester who grew up around that time, it was a huge event for them. It was one of those things where bands were formed as a result of having seen The Stone Roses." Not least Oasis, formed by the Gallagher Brothers in the wake of seeing the gig.
With an ominous power station looming in the background, a few dozen excitable extras are shivering nearby in shorts and T-shirts. "It was snowing on us in the middle of a take," Whitecross sighs. "And it's supposed to be the height of summer." Dotted around are clusters of palette crates, ready to be set ablaze as the night draws in, while the camera is set to loom over 20ft-high wall meant to be the concert perimeter.
The shot is a key one, as Spike Island's teenage protagonists march up to the gate on that blissful Sunday. According to Whitecross, what he loved about the script, penned by actor-writer Chris Coghill, was its grassroots viewpoint. "It's about kids trying to get into the gig, rather than told from the perspective of The Stone Roses. They don't have tickets, they can't get in, they don't know how to get in — they have to blag, steal, lie their way in… by any means necessary."
Ironically, that very scenario is a very real possibility come the end of June. As any fan knows, The Stone Roses announced a feverishly anticipated reunion last October, with a series of gigs set to be played this summer to expectant crowds. The first to be scheduled – to be played at Heaton Park, Manchester – sold out in record time. "The timing's extraordinary really," says Coghill. "I started writing the script three years ago, and it just so happens the stars have aligned."
It's the sort of serendipitous publicity financiers only dream of. With This is England director Shane Meadows also working on a documentary about the Roses' fractious history, the renewed interest in the band, and their music, can only be a good thing for Spike Island. Though as Whitecross points out, this is no biopic. "It's not about The Stone Roses. That's what appealed to me. It's a coming-of-age story. You don't have to be a massive Stone Roses fan to get into it."
Spike Island's focus is a bunch of schoolmates who have formed their own band, Shadow Caster. "All we want to do is get our demo to the Stone Roses," notes newcomer Jordan Murphy, who plays drummer Zippy, "and by any means necessary, we'll get it there." With the songs written by Ash's Tim Wheeler, Murphy and his co-stars all had to rehearse as a real band. Some, like Adam Long – who plays bassist Little Gaz – were old hands. Others such as Nico Mirallegro – lead guitarist Dodge – had never picked up their instrument before.
With the band led by singer Tits (Shameless star Elliott Tittensor), "all the lads in the film are slightly different versions of me," says Coghill, who was just 15 years old when Spike Island happened. Raised in Manchester – his parents' house is near Heaton Park – he was promised a ticket for the gig, but it fell through. "I ended up spending the entire day sitting in mum and dad's house, gutted, listening to the album on me own. Very tragic! It's always pissed me off that I never went."
Since then, Coghill, who oddly enough played Happy Monday's Bez in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, befriended both singer Ian Brown and bassist Mani. "I emailed both of them at the conception point, and they said, 'You've got our blessing. Anything we can do to help it move on.' And they've been great. We got the music licence straight away." Which means such glorious tracks as "I Am The Resurrection", "Made Of Stone" and "Waterfall" will all get an airing (though with the gig the backdrop to the story, Whitecross is not recreating onstage footage).
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With the production also acquiring rights to guitarist John Squire's distinct Jackson Pollock-inspired artwork, there is even unconfirmed talk that the band may take small cameos (Coghill also plays a small role, as Tits's uncle). Such has been the level of support, Mani turned up to watch a rehearsal. He was "dead sound" according to Tittensor. "We played the song for him, and it must've been the shittest run through of the song ever," he laughs. "It was probably the pressure of him being there."
The question is will the film – and the music – chime with young audiences? Judging by the young cast, then the answer is a resounding "yes". Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, who plays Tits's love interest Sally, recalls one trick Whitecross has used to get everyone through the bitterly cold night-shoots. "They whack on The Stone Roses, and genuinely everyone is like "We're gonna have a mint time!" Everyone's just comes up on it. Their music has such heart to it."
According to Coghill, he thinks the upcoming gigs will show just how the band's music has been embraced by a new generation. "Talking to extras here, there are a lot of young people who are like, 'I can't wait for Heaton Park'." Whitecross concurs, citing the timeless quality to their music. "It does feel that The Stone Roses are one of those bands that people keep on returning to." With a third album underway, the Roses' revival starts here.
The release date of 'Spike Island' is still to be confirmed. The Stone Roses play Heaton Park on 29 and 30 June, and 1 July, and the V Festival on 18 and 19 August
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