Not many films are set at music festivals. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, “Monterey Pop” is vital, we’ll grant you, and other rock docs that expose something fundamental about the artists they’re profiling (“Don’t Look Back,” “Gimme Shelter”) remain compelling portraits of some of the most important artists of the twentieth-century. But, much like stand-up comedy or running for high office, fictional recreations of what compels a human being to get up onstage in front of thousands of people and expose themselves to the public at large, are far and few between.
With this in mind we turn to “You Instead,” which is director David Mackenzie’s seventh feature film, not that you’d known it from anything on display here. It has all the manufactured, forcible ‘fun’ of a T-Mobile flash-mob advert although it attempts to weave a spontaneous star-cross’d romance out of a happenstance meeting between two bright young things at the T in the Park music festival in Scotland. Unfortunately it’s about as entertaining and convincing as a campfire sing-along of Kumbaya as staffed by a R&D lackey casually smoking a doobie, wearing wayfarers and insisting you down that brisk shot of absinthe because you’ll, like, totally have the time of your life if you do. Shot on the hoof in just over four days, its lack of togetherness and hipper-than-thou attitude bleeds through into almost every aspect of the film.
Mackenzie, who showed he had directorial chops with “Young Adam,” “Hallam Foe” and, to a lesser extent, the commercially unsuccessful Ashton Kutcher vehicle “Spread,” swiftly comes unstuck at the seams. This writer’s dislike of the film was instantaneous, although people who have a greater tolerance for films which start with impassioned and ‘impromptu’ acoustic jamming sessions in backs of cars may well find the tale more endearing. As it is, the experience feels more like accidentally wandering into a hostile branch of Urban Outfitters and being pelted with superfluous glamor accessories whilst the more truculent members of staff snigger at you in the corner. Its quasi-documentary style is supposedly improvisatory but plays as lackadaisical, and it’s a trait that spills over into the treatment of its characters, all of whom feel less like authentic human beings or indie-rock musicians than poorly-researched approximations of the real thing; their mannerisms and thin backstories presumably cobbled together from hasty dramatic improvisation sessions. The approach continues into the film’s attempts at humor, as anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the idiosyncrasies of British musical festivals will find, with predictable jokes about unsanitary portable toilets, and set-pieces involving mud wrestling, wearisome and maddening.
Much of the problems stem from male lead Luke Treadaway. He’s a British actor who made his name in “Brothers of the Head,” was a delight in the recent “Attack the Block,” and no doubt has Andrew Garfield-style success mapped out for him at some point in the near future. As the louche, apparently successful Californian pseudo-douchebag Adam, though, he’s screamingly unconvincing. We’re led to believe that on the one hand he’s a precious artistic type (at one of the film’s numerous low points he ventures like-minded musicians develop “telepathic connections” with each other) and on the other he’s involved sexually with a vapid model who’s essentially more glamorous version of Kate Capshaw in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” who perpetually carps about her appearance. Adam’s partner in crime and fellow band member is Tyko (Mathew Baynton), a vaguely comedic keyboard player who spends the most of the film’s running time wearing NHS-style glasses and a bright yellow fisherman’s jacket, and whose adjoining personality is as irritating as that dress combination sounds. Together we are led to believe they are members of a fictional sub-Interpol electro-indie band called The Make, and that the band are represented by an aging moustachioed loudmouth (Gavin Mitchell) who is prone to get drunk and harass festivalgoers. To put it extremely mildly, it’s a stretch.
This threesome is ruptured when Adam is literally joined at the wrist by chest-thumping fem-rocker Morello (Natalia Tena, you know her as Nymphadora Tonks from “Harry Potter”) following the film’s most bizarre transgression, in which a black man who apparently works security for the event (Joseph Mydell) handcuffs the braying musicians together, claiming it’s an act of “magic,” and then promptly disappears. Less offensive clichés abound from this point onwards, but it’s a high concept that would make even the late Don Simpson blanch, and from here on out this pair of good-looking, sunglass-wearing, insufferably self-centred musical egoists are forced to spend eighty minutes in each other’s company, in all manner of intimate situations. Whatever will transpire between these two waifs, the viewer wonders? The most convincing scene of their flowering love for another is one in which Adam is forced onstage during a performance by Morello’s band The Dirty Pinks and hijacks the song by warbling the chorus to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Later, the two pay homage to another camp classic usually best reserved for karaoke bars, by doing the inevitable monster mash in a shower.
The film’s execution is as embarrassing as its one-dimensional characterizations. Gaps in the narrative are filled by sweeping crowd shots presumably lifted from BBC B roll footage of the event proper, and superfluous side-stories that go nowhere stick out. There are some scenes involving a documentary crew headed by what seems to be a vague take-off of documentarian Franny Armstrong but, like much of the rest of the film, it’s a dead-end, providing only a lame excuse to meekly debate lobbying government for environmental causes. Otherwise we stop the film for a few minutes to listen to a song performed by The Proclaimers, or spend time on-stage with indistinguishable landfill indie outfits like Newton Faulkner (who also crops up for an unfunny cameo) and Biffy Clyro, whose performances do nothing to support the main narrative other than highlight how flimsy its foundation is. It’s hard to get any vicarious thrill from these concert experiences, and any momentary flashes of sweetness elsewhere in the film are either stamped out by the characters’ whiny and pig-ugly self-entitled attitudes or feel constructed to suit its pat Richard Curtis-infected ending.
For the most part “You Instead” plays like a conservative and even-more-boring version of Michael Winterbottom’s “Nine Songs” which, instead of including in-your-face sequences of the principal actors having explicit sex on-camera, includes a montage of the handcuffed pair and their respective spouses trying on hats. For all the shortcomings of Winterbottom’s similarly inclined film its unsimulated sex did, at least, provide an enlivening talking point. “You Instead” succeeds only in replicating the dullest parts of the festival experience and seeking, unadvisedly no doubt, to appeal to hipsters with high self-esteem. You’ll recall that rockumentarian Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) called out one of Spinal Tap’s fictional albums, “Shark Sandwich,” for being a “shit sandwich.” If DiBergi was doling out a similar appraisal for “You Instead,” he might proffer “flypaper for twats.”
Given that his film’s remit is frivolous and inconsequential, one would be tempted to let McKenzie off the hook, this being shot in four days and all, until you remember that Edgar Ulmer’s “Detour” completed filming after six and that’s a masterpiece. Perhaps it’s intended as a light trifle, the director’s knockabout festival picture in the vein of Shane Meadows’ “Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee,” in which case it should know better than to have such a high opinion of itself. At a certain point in the film one of the characters, in a tiz and rushing to see one of her favourite bands, unironically spouts, “Kasabian are about to play the main stage!” and quickens her pace. For anyone who’s seen an atrocious band like Kasbian play live, it’s the funniest line in an otherwise insipid and unnecessary work of fiction. [C-]
“You Instead” opens in the U.K. this Friday, September 16th.