FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: A FILM ABOUT A BAND
From Amadeus to Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody to Sid & Nancy, musician biopics tend to go in and out of vogue; a big one comes along and spawns a whole bunch more and then the film industry moves on to a new theme, like sport or fashion. A common thread is that the subjects of such movies are invariably household names. Of course, in a parallel universe, seasoned London-cum-Madrid outfit, Morton Valence, is up there with Mozart, Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury and, quite possibly, Sid Vicious in the recognition stakes. So, it is especially welcome news for those of us not on Planet Tharg that the illustrious combo is now getting into the film business.
Its latest venture, a movie artfully titled This is a Film About a Band, reminds me that Morton Valence has been ploughing its independent, ever spirited furrow for the best part of two decades now. These days, the band chiefly operates as its founding duo, Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett and Anne Gilpin; two disparate musicians whose voices somehow blend flawlessly. In past times it has boasted a cosmopolitan line-up; at one point, an Englishman, Irish woman and three South Americans. The band’s sound has moved on from dance and electronica origins towards what it now describes fittingly as “urban country”. Morton Valence offers an affectionate take on the country genre, mixing Americana with South London folk tales in a compelling, soft or loud, and frequently louche manner. Here is the movie trailer.
The film is described by its writers, Rob and Anne, as ‘an autobiographical, creative punkumentary charting how their band, Morton Valence, became frustrated with the shenanigans of the music business, and attempted to carve out a new way of navigating through it, with genuinely authentic and revolutionary independence.’ It may be a while until the movie can have its public premiere safely but there are plans to screen it at The Whirled Cinema in Brixton; a challenge for any Sat Navs, as those who made it by car to the band’s launch of its splendid second album, Me & Home James, will no doubt testify. Hopefully, it will be combined with a live show so please watch this space. Meanwhile the UK Seasonal Short Film Festival has kindly bestowed a laurel upon the film.
After seven independent album releases, Morton Valence recently signed a deal with Cow Pie Records, a label started back in 1978 by legendary steel guitar player BJ Cole and the godfather of UK country music, Hank Wangford. The label is now run by Patrick Hart who is on the right of the coyly mocked-up signing photo that heads this piece, alongside some imagined giants of the record business, and of course, Rob and Anne. In collaboration with Cow Pie, a remastered version of the album MV recorded under the aegis of Black Angel Drifter will be repackaged in beautiful black vinyl, while Rob and Anne are currently working on an eighth Morton Valence record.
To demonstrate just two aspects of this wonderful multi-faceted band, check out the blissful “Man on the Corner” – it’s a slow builder so bear with it – and marvel at the darkly comedic mini movie that is “Chinatown”. There are more uncovered gems on the Morton Valence YouTube channel.
Music in film serves a great many purposes. It’s hard to imagine film or TV without music to enhance mood, shape responses, heighten suspense, preview or sum up the action. Some bands just seem to work perfectly hand-in-hand with the genre. Summer Camp, the British husband and wife team of Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey, set the camera rolling when imagining a mythical US town on its debut album, Welcome to Condale. It was no surprise that further on in their career the duo went on to soundtrack director Charlie Lyne’s 2016 great exploration of American teen movie culture, Beyond Clueless.
Beyond Clueless explores teenage life seen through well over 200 coming-of-age movies. Its soundtrack was a collaborative effort with the director feeding the footage, allowing Summer Camp musically to evoke the moods suggested by the images, with the final frames cut to the band’s finished score. Summer Camp went on to release a new album earlier this year; itself a companion piece to Elizabeth Sankey’s own documentary film debut, Romantic Comedy. The film and record both celebrate and subvert rom-com tropes in a similar way to how Charlie Lyne dissected US high school movies in Beyond Clueless.
Over the past 10 years, Summer Camp has produced some terrific music, carving a creative niche for itself that seems a more spacious spot than that occupied by many others in the indie-pop arena. “The Ugly Truth” from Romantic Comedy is a case in point. The song, highlighted by some nice, unexpected melodic twists, undermines the high ideals of ‘love-at-first-sight’ and ‘the one’, replacing them with a more balanced view of the perfect and imperfect in any relationship.
It seemed appropriate to celebrate the band’s work in relation to film here but I also wanted to acknowledge that, following the birth of their beautiful son just over a month ago, Elizabeth has been suffering from postpartum anxiety disorder, so much so that she had to go to hospital and, as I write, is in a mother and baby unit. She has bravely and candidly shared her situation on Twitter with the hope that it might help her or indeed another in her situation. She writes that her husband, Jeremy, ‘has been amazing in an incredibly difficult situation.’
On Wednesday, some light seemed to be emerging as after weeks of waking up every day with horrific anxiety and terror, she wrote that she felt tentatively hopeful, sitting in her room in the unit, feeding baby and listening to The Grateful Dead. Perhaps it was American Beauty! Twitter can be a dark place at times but thankfully Elizabeth’s posts are accompanied by copious messages of love and support. I am reminded of the opening words from the brilliant “Two Chords” from the band’s self-titled second album: "Today today today today / Today I feel okay". Long may her clouds continue to lift with each successive day. Although this marvellous spoof featuring a TV couple's breakdown alongside an imploding climate disaster might not seem ideal medecine, you'll discover something new and oddly life-affirming every time you watch it.