Critic Karina Longworth continues her coverage of Doc/Fest in Sheffield with reviews of music docs The Beat is the Law Part One and Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam.
Anyone coming into the Sheffield music scene primer The Beat is the Law Part One looking for the definitive story of Pulp, this Northern town’s most famous sons and daughter, will likely leave disappointed. In the first 70-minute segment of what is planned as a two-part film, Eve Wood has made a sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustratingly slow and specific excavation of the beginnings of (mostly) industrial music in a town that, thanks to Thatcher’s privatization of coal and steel, was losing its key industries just as an effort to the capture the atmosphere of the city through mechanical sound was really getting started.
Wood has compiled some fantastic archival footage of bands like ClockDVA, Hula and a very early incarnation of Pulp, plus remarkable photos and handheld video of worker protests, urban decay, industrial spaces repurposed as art spaces. “Thatcher’s Britain of the 80s was perhaps a great supporter of the arts,” says Pulp’s Nick Banks — that is, because everyone was on the dole, and an effortlessly obtained government allowance freed up time and cash to spend on instruments and art supplies. And beer — Jarvis Cocker says everyone in town spent their state-funded bedding allowance on ale, “which does help you sleep.” The local musicians transitioned from wardens of the state to corporate beneficiaries when Chakk, a combo sounding something like a paleolithic Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails, milked money from MCA to start their own recording studio over a smelting factory.
Pulp’s eventual fame haunts the proceedings (the opening sequence of gorgeous low grade footage of the city at night is even set to the band’s very early single, “Sheffield: Sex City”) without ever becoming the literal topic of Part One. Four core members of the band — Candida Doyle, Russell Senior, Banks and frontman/superstar Cocker — each appear in Part One, offering relatively candid talking head interviews, but this first half is mostly dedicated to bands that had burnt out by the time Pulp became proper pop stars in the mid-90s. In fact, Part One ends with the local record label Fon, an outgrowth of Chakk’s studio, rejecting Pulp’s recordings, at which point Jarvis breaks up the band temporarily to go to art school in London. Though the film doesn’t specify this, the school he fled to was Central St. Martins, where Cocker would have the encounter with a slumming princess that he’d later spin into the reformed Pulp’s biggest single, “Common People.” A film purporting to reveal the solid-as-steel links between Sheffield’s labor struggle and its music scene cuts to “to be continued” just as its hometown hero heads down the road to penning the greatest pop song about class struggle of all time? Part One is not a total wash, but it is a tease.
Another rock doc screening here, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, is less hampered by the burdens of expectations. It’s a fast-paced, infectious travelogue from the center of the burgeoning American Muslim punk rock storm. Taqwacore as a subculture consists of about half a dozen bands inspired by The Taqwacores, an initially self-published novel by Michael Muhammed Knight, an American who converted to Islam at age 16 after reading The Autobiography of Malcom X. Feeling stuck somewhere between the twin poles of salvation presented by his adopted faith and modern, idealistic punk rock, Knight created a fantasy flophouse that melded the two worlds. His book caught on amongst disaffected Muslim teens, who soon started to form bands in the image Knight described. Eventually Knight got his hands on a school bus and invited every practicing Taqwacore kid who was willing and able to join him on a tour of the States, climaxing with an impromptu, chaotic show at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. Six months later, Knight and a handful of the most devoted musicians move on to Pakistan. The act remains the same from Chicago to Lahore, but only in one of those locales does the group almost get arrested just for playing music.
Director Omar Majeed understands that his subject is so embryonic that he can only submerge the film’s point of view in the present. When you’re dealing with rebellious teens, even those whose chosen hobby is globally-politically provacative, there is no past or future, there is only now. Because of this, Taqwacore sometimes seems to lack perspective, and especially in its last act it becomes so mired in the soapy day-to-day that it can seem to lose sight of the greater issues. Some of Wood’s subjects are so dated, so lost to the dustbin of pop history, that her film sometimes feels dragged down by the effort to give equal time to all aspects of this past, when certain aspects/characters/imcidents are clearly more relevant to the present. Taqwacore has the inverse issue — it’s all about now to a fault — but its immediacy is part of its fun.