Ahead of his Wednesday night Q&A with the band at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, John Lavin looks at Suede’s Night Thoughts, the movie made to accompany their album of the same name.
Grandiose, foreboding strings soundtrack a man walking across a deserted beach to the sea-line. Anguish is etched into his very complexion. Suddenly the strings fall in on themselves, ‘A Day in the Life’-style, and a stately, quite frankly enormous guitar riff starts up. ‘So softly you’ll run / From the sound of your brother’s gun / And you know it’s not just a game,’ Brett Anderson booms, the camera zooming across the water and the music rising all around him. The man begins to wade into the indifferent waves, bent on snuffing out the terrible thoughts that keep him awake at night once and for all.
This is the opening scene of Roger Sargent’s Night Thoughts, an unabashedly ambitious film made to accompany Suede’s unabashedly ambitious album of the same title. Sargent, who is perhaps best known for his work with The Libertines, attracted Suede’s attention not with his work for that band but with his tour de force video for The Fat White Family’s ‘Touch the Leather’, a brilliantly pained and sleazy promo that Anderson declared would have been the perfect 90’s Suede video. And you can see Anderson’s point immediately because Sargent, in making the leap from music documentaries and promos to a feature length film with consummate ease, has created a visual world which is deeply, deeply Suede. Not the slightly self-parodying Suede-world of ‘nowhere towns’ that characterised the band’s post-Bernard Butler fallout but the Mike Leigh, Joseph Losey, Derek Jarman, Nic Roeg referencing, imperial phase Suede. The Suede that, like The Smiths before them, always placed a great importance on visual aesthetics. The Suede that lay down the blueprint for a new era of poetic, androgynous, social / magical realist British pop music, only to have it blithely co-opted into a lowest common denominator flag-waving exercise by everyone from Damon Albarn to Geri Halliwell to Tony Blair.
As though to underline the impression that (even though Butler remains absent), this imperious, important incarnation of Suede has returned at full throttle, ‘No Tomorrow’, (arguably the single most successful fusing of music and film in the Night Thoughts project), is clearly intended as a riposte to Albarn’s nostalgic Britpop call to arms, ‘For Tomorrow’. The chorus of that song famously – and some might say inanely – goes, ‘La la la la la, la la la la la la la / Holding on for tomorrow’. In ‘No Tomorrow’, Anderson implores us in a fragile falsetto to, ‘fight the sorrow, like there’s no tomorrow’, channelling the same strain of poignantly melancholic British pluck as Cicely Courtneidge’s thwarted lesbian in 60’s kitchen sink classic, The L-Shaped Room (the film Morrissey famously sampled for the opening of The Queen is Dead). And let’s just say there’s no swinging from old London buses, no feeding pigeons, no romantic afternoons on Primrose Hill in Sargent’s film treatment. Rather, we are presented with a young woman going to visit her partner’s father and finding him unconscious on the floor, having taken several boxes of pain killers. Thereafter she spends a long time forcing him to vomit while waiting for her partner (the man from the opening scene) and the paramedics to arrive. Twinned to a powerful song about Anderson’s father’s struggles with depression and how the teenage Anderson dealt with this, the entire piece is almost too emotionally overwhelming, is almost too unbearable – and you feel that Sargent has more than met his brief. The viewer has been pulled under, deep into the night terrors that are Anderson’s subject matter.
With Night Thoughts, Suede and Sargent have truly achieved what Francis Bacon declared that all artists should do. They have ‘deepen[ed] the mystery’. And in doing so they have created a truly potent synthesis of sound and vision that is also a powerful restatement of Suede’s original vision for the future of British music.
Night Thoughts is being shown at Chapter this Wednesday 15/06/16, followed by a Q&A with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Roger Sargent, hosted by John Lavin.