It’s a stellar year for documentaries about the music and clubbing world. Lush columnist Carmen Gray picks five recent highlights from doc showcases including the Berlinale, CPH:DOX, and Moscow’s Beat Film Festival
Berlin club Berghain is world-famous as techno heaven — and notorious for an entry policy as enigmatic to crack as it is punishingly strict. The power this confers on Sven Marquardt - its pierced and tattooed head doorman - has made him as much of a revered celebrity as the DJs behind the decks inside. It’s only in the German capital that bouncers possess such status; so it’s only natural it was at the Berlinale that a documentary about three of these nightlife legends premiered. Along with Sven, who also has a foot in the artworld as a photographer; Frank Künster, of the recently closed King Size Bar, and Smiley Baldwin, who was stationed in West Berlin as an American soldier before he became a bouncer in the ‘80s, take us into their lives on and off the job in David Dietl’s Berlin Bouncer. The film also gives insight into the changing face of Berlin subculture, as gentrification transforms the city.
EVERYBODY IN THE PLACE
Just how long ago were the mid-80s? The unique set-up of Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place - which is couched as a talk in front of a class of London state school sixth-formers - is a fascinating exploration of how much kids and their creative tribes have (or haven’t) changed. The British artist, whose collaborative, conceptual work has often incorporated techno, revisits the origins of acid house, underground raves and the ‘second summer of love’ in the documentary, which screened at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX. He gauges the impressions of the diverse group of pupils to the phenomenon from a point now when photos of phoneless raves, the crowd lost in communion, seem to them like something from outer space. The sparks of political resistance that fly in subcultural movements has never been lost on Deller, and he makes a compelling case for how closely connected this grassroots explosion of culture was to the miners’ strike, in which Thatcher cracked down on the mobilised masses.
A DOG CALLED MONEY
English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey has the charisma of a true rock icon down pat in her blend of Victorian-gothic darkness and punk rawness. Fans’ enduring fascination with her means she could effortlessly front a documentary on her life. But director Seamus Murphy’s loose, impressionistic, and unconventional A Dog Called Money, which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, is not about her exactly — and you get the sense her heart is too ‘with the music over the spectacle’ to have had it any other way. The pair travel between a London recording studio, Kosovo and Afghanistan, documenting her creative process as she takes inspiration from locals and records her ninth studio album The Hope Six Demolition Project. They also visit Washington DC, where aggressive gentrification is driving low-income residents from their homes, lending the politically-charged album its name.
Georgia’s capital Tbilisi is the hip destination of the moment among techno fans, who are drawn to its club Bassiani, which since it opened five years has quickly earned a reputation as being among the world’s best places to party. It’s an enthusiasm not shared by the post-Soviet nation’s authorities. In May 2018, police stormed the club, prompting thousands to dance in protest in front of parliament, demanding greater freedoms and drug reform. Raving Riot, a documentary on the clubbing scene and the demonstration, had its world premiere in Moscow this month at Beat Film Festival. Directed by Stepan Polivanov and produced by well-known Moscow collective Stereotactic, the atmospheric film shows how a young generation have made nighttime their playground for free expression within the highly conservative society. It captures the deep ambivalence that now permeates the clubbing and activist communities after their mass act of symbolic resistance failed to overturn the system, yet showed what might be possible.
Huge debates around musical legacy, and whether the deeds of its makers can be separated from the cultural value we confer upon it, have swirled in the MeToo era. Scores of fans have been reevaluating their attitude to the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson, especially in the wake of filmmaker Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, out ten years after his death. The four-hour documentary, which screened at CPH:DOX and on TV on HBO, exhaustively and in devastating detail confronts us with the testimony of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who say the star sexually abused them for years as children. Their interviews are highly credible, and whatever this means for your stance on whether to throw those Thriller albums in the bin, the film is a damning portrayal of a corrupt entertainment industry in which the power of celebrity can blind and manipulate guardian figures and enablers with astonishing ease.
Carmen Gray is a freelance film programmer, critic and journalist who was born in New Zealand and now lives in Berlin. She is interested in the intersection of art, politics and collective history.