Craig Austin reviews the cynical Art Will Save the World, in which Luke Haines looks back on himself, his career, and the music industry.
In ‘Leeds United’, a rumbustious 2006 depiction of 1970s Britain viewed through the grubby lens of the nationwide hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Luke Haines tosses off a faintly spurious list of unlikely potential suspects that incorporates her majesty The Queen and masked World of Sport wrestler Kendo Nagasaki; not forgetting to cite the then feted TV celebrity, Radio 1 DJ, and much-admired charity fundraiser, Jimmy Savile. Further evidence perhaps of the validity of the artist’s own occasionally exasperated propaganda that pitches himself as a man ahead of his time, a prophet honoured more readily in kingdoms other than his own, and one of England’s greatest contemporary songwriters. The Graham Greene of rock’n’roll, our honorary consul.
“I’m flying from Buenos Aires back to England”, our ‘unreliable narrator’ states unreliably in one of the film’s opening sequences; a characteristically recurring Haines invention (a.k.a. lie) that rests befittingly alongside the abiding mystique of the artist’s substantial and occasionally baffling body of work and McCann’s opening gambit that the events of his documentary are merely ‘based on a true story’. For Haines, the architect of ‘Baader Meinhof’ (a self-styled ‘terrorist funk’ project), the creator of a concept album based on the British wrestling scene of the 1970s, and a man who once famously staged a one-man nationwide ‘pop strike’, the idea that anyone would be interested in making a film about him results only in “a sinking feeling that this is a bad idea”.
Formerly the frontman and prolifically inventive songwriter of the criminally underrated Auteurs, Luke Haines is for many best known as the author of Bad Vibes, a comically cold-blooded post-mortem of the mid-90s Britpop scene and its lightweight rag-bag of attendant players; a period so culturally impoverished in the eyes of the author that he refuses to acknowledge that he was ever associated with it, or (most remarkably) that it even existed. Within its pages, Haines sets about the cultural icons of the day with the glee of a Mexican child wielding a baseball bat; the crumbling edifice of mid-90s pop culture its fragile and ultimately hollow piñata. Though Jarvis Cocker escapes the worst of the author’s bile (and gratefully acknowledges the ‘favour’ by assuming the role of the film’s primary talking head) the same can hardly be said of his erstwhile peers on the UK indie scene. To Haines, Brett Anderson of Suede’s “pseudo-bumboy androgyny is more ‘Grange Hill’ than Bowie”, Oasis are dismissed as “light entertainment” (and at one point, memorably fired at by Haines with an air pistol) and Parklife-era Blur labelled “a master-class in media complicity”. Accordingly, it’s maybe no surprise that of the numerous sloganeering inserts that segment the flow of this multi-layered documentary the one that resonates most palpably across the two decades that have since followed is the candid assertion that “fame is the excrement of achievement”; an inevitably unwelcome by-product of the craft and the undignified bastardisation of the artist and his work; the point at which the relentless treadmill of hoopla takes over and transforms diamonds into debris.
The title of McCann’s film is more than a little misleading given that even if Haines believes it to be true, the world’s ultimate salvation – in his eyes at least – is evidently not one based on the principle of anything so petty or crass as democracy. Echoing Sid Vicious’s gleefully obscene quote about the supposed cultural irrelevance of ‘the man on the street’, Haines tears into the man on the Clapham Omnibus with palpable glee: “Art isn’t for the man on the street… I have no interest in his life, his thoughts… his gainful employment. Fuck the man on the street, fuck him!” From the commercial highpoints of a Mercury award nomination that was beaten to the prize by Suede’s debut album by just a single vote and an incongruous Top of the Pops appearance with the delightfully arch Black Box Recorder we are cordially invited to follow the trail of a bizarre commercial spiral (a period that Haines characterises as being “outside the walls of the city”) that McCann’s film seeks to portray via the juxtaposition of two of the artist’s promo videos and their swiftly plummeting budgets. A comparison made faintly comical by the fact that it’s hard to tell which of “The Rubettes” (budget: £50,000) and “Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop” (budget: £500) is which.
As much as Haines would hate the comparison, the film acts as the perfect companion piece to the recent ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’, Paul Kelly’s biopic of the former Felt front-man, minus of course the squalor, absurdity and delusion. This writer left the cinema having watched ‘Belgravia’ vowing never to buy another of Lawrence’s records on the basis that it would only be an encouragement for him to carry on, whereas Haines (a musician, author, and now painter) may yet surprise us by demonstrating that in his case the best may well be yet to come. McCann’s work, as disjointed and fragmented as it can occasionally be, delivers what all the best music biographies (either cinematic or literary) ultimately achieve, the inspiration to rediscover and reacquaint oneself with the subject’s body of work. What both documentary films do share however is an individual driven by bloody-minded self-belief and an inner streak of quiet superiority; the O’Rourke-ian triumph (in the case of Haines, at least) of age and guile over youth and a bad haircut.
Post-screening, when I ask Luke Haines (a man that author and former industry drone John Niven describes as being the perfect scriptwriter for anyone planning a musical based on the lives of Fred and Rose West, let’s not forget) whether he is disappointed that his prior musings on Savile had not resulted in him being invited to be interviewed on Newsnight, his response is perhaps surprising. “Paedo-geddon, you mean? I don’t think so. I’d like to be kept as far away from that as humanly possible if you don’t mind”. Now a father himself Luke Haines is, by his own admission, highly unlikely to write another song in the vein of the elegantly bleak ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s mellowed in his dealings with the rest of the human race. On-screen, when asked if he’s comfortable with his prevailing reputation as a misanthrope he reflects for a moment before coming to the same logical conclusion as most of us would given the same supposition: “It’s better than being called a wanker”.