Common people

New Zealand director Florian Habicht brings his documentary on British rock band Pulp and its hometown to the Docaviv film festival.

Another offering is a film about American recording studio Muscle Shoals. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Another offering is a film about American recording studio Muscle Shoals.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year’s 16th annual Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival is fast approaching, and there is a whole bunch of fun and eye-opening music-related items on offer. The genre and thematic spread is particularly wide. It takes in famous figures from the global music scene, such as iconic Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, composer and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, in addition to Britpop band Pulp. However, it also peeks behind the glitter of the celebrity acts, for instance with 20 Feet from Stardom, which offers a fascinating look at the life and work of some of the busiest backup vocalists in the entertainment business.
We take a few more steps away from the spotlight with Jalanan (“Streetside”), which portrays the lives and dreams of three gifted street musicians who ply their trade on the streets and buses of Jakarta, providing us with a captivating taste of a colorful subculture in the Indonesian capital. The music category of Docaviv also features works from local acts, including a student movie about indie rocker Yehu Yaron and A Bag of Sentiments, about seminal Israeli pop-rock band Kaveret, based on last year’s anniversary reunion 40 years after the group first broke up.
Berlin-born New Zealand director Florian Habicht’s portrayal of British rock band Pulp is a fascinating piece of work on all sorts of levels. For starters, it is about one of the world’s most successful groups in the mid-1990s, but, more importantly, it’s about where the band members come from, musically, physically and emotionally, and about the northern English city they call home, Sheffield.
Pulp is very much a ground-level effort.
There is no “rock god” sentiment in the film, despite 38-year-old Habicht being an avowed fan of the band. It is simply a delightful portrait of a bunch of people who happen to be musicians, and happen to have experienced enormous success. It also portrays the fans, of all ages and from all walks of life, who not only love the music Pulp has recorded and performed over the last three or so decades, but also relate to the no-nonsense ethos of band leader Jarvis Cocker and his mates on stage.
By the time he got around to working on Pulp, Habicht was already a devotee of Cocker, et al. In fact, he connected with the band’s music by a roundabout route. “I had a friend who was a dancer, and she used a Pulp song as background music for a dance she made,” says the director. “She used the track ‘Bar Italia’ [the closing number from the band’s 1995 release Different Class]. I just loved that track. It talks about a couple that have stayed up all night and are going somewhere for a coffee, while people go to work.”
A decade and a half down the line, Habicht got to meet the principal object of his starry-eyed admiration after a hellfor- leather bit of initiative. When Habicht’s 2011 film Love Story was included in the lineup of the 2012 London Film Festival, the director took a chance and set about asking Cocker if he’d like to attend the screening. “I was in New York at the time, and I thought, who could I invite that I know in London to the screening, so I thought why don’t I invite Pulp?” recalls Habicht. He got hold of the singer’s email address and promptly proposed the idea. And the rest is history.
Habicht and Cocker met in London prior to the screening, but after the singer had seen a trailer of Love Story.
He evidently liked what he saw because he and the New Zealander began meeting for cups of tea in London’s Soho district, and discussing their respective ideas for making a film about Cocker’s hometown.
“Both our ideas shared the exact same spirit,” says Habicht. “They were about the people of Sheffield, and not about the band. It was a really nice coincidence that we had the same vision of a film, so that the band is not the center of the universe.”
In fact Pulp is about both, and the director deftly intertwines the individual members of the band – principally Cocker – and a motley selection of Pulp fans, some of whom you would not normally associate with devotion to the music of the Britpop outfit, and others who traveled from way outside the Yorkshire city, and from outside Britain, to catch the band’s gig in its hometown.
Habicht illustrates this central ethos of the documentary by reference to one of Pulp’s biggest hits, “Common People,” which also comes from the Different Class album. The chorus of the song includes the lines: “I want to live like common people. I want to do whatever common people do. I want to sleep with common people. I want to sleep with common people, like you.”
“It is about exploring the common people in a real way,” Habicht says, “not talking to scholars and analyzing what a ‘common person’ is, or that kind of thing.”
Habicht clearly struck a good rapport with Cocker and the rest of the band – keyboardist Candida Doyle, drummer Nick Banks, bass guitarist Steve Mackey and guitarist-keyboard player Mark Webber – and they all talk openly with Habicht about their feelings, as people and as members of a hugely successful rock outfit. Some even admit to having had doubts about their line of work over the years.
The entire filmmaking process took around 14 months, and Habicht says the warm interpersonal vibes were retained throughout, and beyond.
“Jarvis and I still have the same chemistry as we did at the beginning,” says the director, adding that the generous comfort zone made the preliminaries an altogether happier time too. “It took Jarvis and Pulp maybe four days to invite me to make the film. They didn’t speak to a whole load of directors, they went on gut instinct, which is the way I like to make films as well.”
As the filming progressed, Habicht increasingly found working with Pulp a pleasurable go-with-the-flow experience.
“I learnt that Pulp like to make decisions by instinct,” he says. “They make decisions at the last minute, and make them instinctively, and that’s really how the whole film was made. We didn’t really have a script, we were editing as we were shooting.
The Pulp guys got to know me quite well, quite fast, and there was just a lot of trust between us.”
The whole film, indeed, exudes a feelgood sentiment, and you really get the impression that Cocker and his band mates are “common people.”
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