On The Road: Wolf Alice review – beautifully unconventional filmmaking

On The Road, Michael Winterbottom’s documentary/drama/DVD-of-the-tour, seems to have gone unnoticed even by the most adoring Wolf Alice fans. It’s a shame, as those that worship the enigmatic Rowsell and co. will probably feel most fulfilled by this largely unfulfilling piece of cinema. Structurally, On The Road can be disorientating, frustrating and – most criminally – boring. But amongst the chaos, Winterbottom presents raw snatches of real emotion; beautifully introspective moments that are truly enchanting.

The 2017 “rockumentary” follows Wolf Alice, one of Britain’s most popular alt-rock bands, across 16 nights of their mammoth UK tour. We’re eased into their documented journey through fiction – new “from the management” Estelle (Leah Harvey) joins the tour at Belfast and proceeds to not really do much other than watch the band from the crowd and fall for strapping Scot Joe (James McArdle). Estelle’s fresh eyes allow an intriguing lense with which to view life on the road, but her romcom-esque love story doesn’t quite gel with the spectacle of Wolf Alice on tour. The brief introduction of Joe’s alcoholic mother (a bizarre cameo from the brilliant Shirley Henderson) feels particularly out of place, suggesting that fiction and documentary aren’t the most natural of partners.

 

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Credit: RCA Records

 

The backstage scenes simmer with the charm of both the film’s fictional and real-life characters, and it’s here that Winterbottom really succeeds in showing us an honest depiction of life on road. However, the band’s live performances are often jarringly inserted, and are overused near the film’s conclusion. Wolf Alice’s rousing delivery of ‘Bros’, ‘Giant Peach’ and more are undeniably spectacular, but the patchwork narrative of On The Road makes them feel like irritating delays until the drama starts back up again.

The elusive psyche of Ellie Rowsell proves the most alluring element of the film. She speaks mostly in whispers; she avoids the camera until she’s bathed in a literal spotlight of the stage. Several filmed radio discussions cast light on the draining nature of life on the road, but Wolf Alice are never overtly prodded by Winterbottom’s direction. Instead of a candid documentary-style interviews, Winterbottom offers brief glimpses at real moments: a broken Rowsell asleep on a radio station sofa, or bass player Theo abruptly departing from the final night of the tour. This adds to the great riddle of Wolf Alice, a band well known for their elusive facade, but also puts up frustrating walls where you’d expect a film to shed light.

On The Road is reminiscent of Wolf Alice’s acclaimed debut, My Love Is Cool. Its beauty is undeniable and completely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, but its shifting nature results in an unpredictable, uneven experience. Some notes rumble on too long; others we’re begging to hear more of. Winterbottom’s unique blend of genre is like a jigsaw, but too many pieces don’t fit.

On The Road was released in 2017, certificate 18.

(Thanks to Xavier, for the DVD I finally got round to watching.)

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In Need of New Rules? The Official Charts & Music’s Gender Problem

This article was originally published via the University of Southampton’s official entertainment magazine, The Edge, on 20th August 2017. It was awarded Best Print Feature at the 2018 University Media Ball. The original article can be viewed here.

This week saw Dua Lipa crowned Queen of the Charts, with her latest pop banger ‘New Rules’ earning the songstress her first number one. This alone is incredulous – her highest charting single to date is her Martin Garrix collab ‘Scared To Be Lonely’, which bizarrely failed to even penetrate the top ten – but more shocking is that Lipa is the first female solo artist to make No. 1 since Adele in 2015. That’s nearly two years. Since Brexit, since Theresa May, since Donald Trump, no woman has claimed victory over the UK Official Charts. But is this some bizarre fluke, a sign of a dysfunctional charting system, or a wake-up call about gender and popular music?

Let’s start by affirming one thing: the ‘solo artist’ is an increasingly dying phenomenon. In 2017 most songs include a featured artist (usually Quavo). If we ignore the ‘solo’ aspect, a woman was at Number 1 just last week, with Katy Perry being one of four artists contributing to Calvin Harris’ ‘Feels’. (Not-Fun Fact 1: The other two were men. 80% of the guest artists on Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 are male.) Women appeared either as a member of a band or as a featured artist in five of 2017’s No. 1s. Other than Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, every single chart topper of 2017 has featured more than one vocal artist. The future is here, apparently.

But despite the unarguable death of the solo artist, most songs do have a lead artist, and a female-fronted single hasn’t achieved the top spot since the tail end of 2016 when Little Mix put ‘Shout Out to My Ex’ at No. 1 for three weeks. (Not-Fun Fact 2: They were the only all female group to get there since Icona Pop in 2013.) For most this is a surprise, especially considering the calibre of female talent out there. Where’s Lorde? ‘Green Light’ only got to No. 20. Rita Ora? ‘Your Song’ peaked at No. 7. Zara Larsson, HAIM, ALMA, Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld, Anne-Marie – the list of women that failed to hit the top spots in 2017 is long and disturbing.

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Then again, most of that talent has one person to blame – Ed Sheeran. ‘Shape of You’ reigned the chart unchallenged for thirteen weeks from 19th January to 13th April, before returning for a lap of honour a week later on 21st April. That’s almost half of the possible No. 1s in 2017 attributed to one man. Then Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’ claimed No. 1 for six consecutive weeks over the summer. The Official Charts are losing validity by the second.

So are they flawed in a way that excludes women from championing them? It’s debatable. The Official Charts have changed dramatically since the introduction of streaming, meaning multiple listens control where a song charts rather than single purchases. Though Bieber and Sheeran’s repeatedly streamed songs obstruct their rivals from the top spot, there’s no reason that female artists can’t make a similar success out of a flawed system. It’s not as if the biggest female artists aren’t releasing singles either; the last two years have seen the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Sia, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and many many more showcasing new, critically acclaimed music. But none of them have reached Number 1. (Not-Fun Fact 3: Another shocking discovery made during my research was that Taylor Swift has never had a UK Number 1. ‘Shake It Off’, ‘Love Story’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ all peaked at two; if that’s not a sign of something being wrong, I don’t know what is.)

Why is this? Are our streaming habits geared towards male artists? Perhaps a male vocalist is simply more appealing to the ear? I don’t think so. There are massive issues with the promotion of female artists, both in America and the UK. An increasingly worrisome trend is that male artists seem to be teaming up with other men for their singles – Calvin Harris and DJ Khaled‘s recent releases contain hives of featured male artists but very few women. Don’t get me started on some of their degrading lyrics, either. Here’s an extract from Drake’s 2016 mega-hit ‘Hotline Bling’, for instance:

“Used to always stay at home, be a good girl / You was in a zone, yeah / You should just be yourself / Right now, you’re someone else”

Objectification, marginalisation, general misogyny; you name it, the songs making up the Official Charts have got it. It’s a massive issue to be examined more another day. Returning to promotion, live music is no better. I’ll leave you with a fourth and final ‘Not-Fun Fact’ about something all music lovers treasure – Glastonbury Festival. In the 21st Century, Britain’s leading festival has seen forty-two headliners, just three of them being female (Beyoncé, Florence & the Machine and Adele). It’s a similar story at every turn – Reading & Leeds, Isle of Wight, British Summertime.

The absence of female artists from the Official Charts’ top spot is a worrisome combination of two wider issues. While the music industry has trouble with its promotion of female artists, streaming services warp the Charts so only the biggest names hold the top spot. As Dua Lipa finally puts an end to this unfortunate trend, it’s time the music industry got some ‘New Rules’.

“I should have put my shades on ‘cos the future’s so bright!” An Interview with Maizie Williams of Boney M.

This article was originally published via the University of Southampton’s official entertainment magazine, The Edge, on 10th June 2018. The original article can be viewed here.

Hurriedly thrust into the press area of Common People, I’m drafting questions on my phone for a music legend in the few minutes I have to prepare. It’s a situation that’s happened more times than I care to admit (as I’m sure many journalists can relate), but it somehow adds to the buzz, the excitement. I’m interviewing the Boney M. What do you ask the Boney M.?

Well, first you have to work out which member you’re talking to. That’s no mean feat, considering the Euro-Caribbean band’s long and complex history. At one point, multiple Boney Ms simultaneously toured the world, each performing classics such as ‘Rasputin’, ‘Daddy Cool’ and ‘Sunny’ on every continent. Lavishing in the backstage sun, we find the effortlessly charming Maizie Williams – the band’s only original member – fresh from performing those iconic hits to an adoring Southampton crowd.

We start at the beginning – what does Boney M. look like in 2018? Maizie delights in that question. “Well… I think the future is looking good! I should have put my shades on today ‘cos the future’s looking so bright! We have been blessed and we’re just as busy today as we were in the ’70s. Thanks to all the fans of course – because of the fans we can still tour and still enjoy what we love doing.”

We touch upon on Boney M.’s monumental legacy, a success story that’s played out over half a decade. “We sold over 150 million records; it’s a nice feeling to know that we achieved that. When we started off we didn’t think for a moment we’d get to where we are today. It was just something we enjoyed doing – we enjoyed singing, we enjoyed performing – and low and behold, we woke up one day and Boney M. was charting major! We were having Number 1 hits. Isn’t that wonderful?” Maizie twinkles with a charming humility, reflected in her attitude to her two student interviewers. She seems genuinely interested in the quirky SUSU media groups that have come together to chat with her under unusual circumstances.

Maizie has been tempted to Southampton by Common People’s “disco day”, a flamboyant ’70s celebration that has also welcomed the Jacksons and Prince’s legendary band. “Oh, disco music was great,” she grins, her nostalgia clear. “Going back in the ’70s – that was the time of true good music! There was so much wonderful excitement, so many different artists bringing out amazing hits; not like today where everything sounds the same! Everyone sounded different, and it was one big family. And then you had people like the Bee Gees, who came up with Disco Fever and took it to another level! It was all about having fun, really enjoying the music… and the dancing! We danced a lot. People don’t dance today. We went from one nightclub to the next!”

Talk turns to the multicultural blend that sets Boney M. apart from the crowd. The original line-up spanned from Germany to the Caribbean, with Maizie herself hailing from Monserrat. “I love all forms of music. Music is not just one particular type of music, it’s worldwide – it’s a cultural thing! Wherever we travel to around the world, we just enjoy the music of that particular culture, and it’s wonderful. I love all types of music – I love jazz, I like blues, I like pop, I love reggae – I love all kinds of music! Italian, French – if it’s good, I like it! Bring it on and I’ll listen to it.” Her boundless positivity speaks volumes for the enduring nature of her career.

We finish with a mean question. Having played Common People Oxford the previous day, I tease out whether she preferred there or Southampton. “They’re both good!” she exclaims, laughing. “I’m not going to put myself on the line by saying one is better than the other. I have to say people react the same to music wherever.” Her manager interjects to say that Oxford *might* have been marginally better, which feels like a suitable point to end the interview. Maizie, ever the diplomat, swerves the point and thanks us for our time. The pleasure was all ours.

Check out our review of ‘Disco Day’ at Common People, and keep your eyes peeled for the radio and TV versions of this interview on Surge Radio and SUSUtv.

Studio 144: Welcome to Southampton’s Cultural Quarter

This article was originally published via the University of Southampton’s official entertainment magazine, The Edge, on 23rd February 2018. It was nominated for Best Print Feature at the 2018 University Media Ball. The original article can be viewed here.

Guildhall Square has truly rooted itself as the beating heart of Southampton. The O2 Guildhall, the city’s premier gig venue, is welcoming bigger stars by the day. Its cocktail bars and restaurants are the hottest place to spend Saturday nights. Even the square itself is advertised as “versatile and contemporary space” for everything from performance art shows to seasonal events. Now, as Studio 144 – the new home of NST City, John Hansard Gallery and City Eye – opens its doors, Southampton can finally show off its very own “Cultural Quarter”; one that’s been fifteen years in the making.

Standing as gatekeepers where Guildhall Square meets East Park, the ‘North’ and ‘South’ buildings of Studio 144 are two striking pieces of modern architecture. With giant glass facades, cubic fronting and pleasing symmetry, it’s hard to believe that the project was first dreamt up before the turn of the millenium. Initially, Studio 144 had a planned opening date of 2002 – the year a lot of current undergraduates started primary school – but was bombarded with problems and delays. Surviving three governments, five general elections and a global financial crisis is no mean feat, but art has a romantic notion of persevering; and maybe even maturing, like fine wine. If anything, the time spent perfecting Studio 144 makes its opening even more of a milestone for Southampton.

The University has been a key player in making the city’s vision a reality. Two of the three businesses now homed within this slice of Southampton’s Cultural Quarter came into life at Highfield Campus. Students will likely be most familiar with the Nuffield, a building set apart by its huge and now weary-looking mint green roof. The theatre, which stands prominently next to the Interchange, remains very much open for business, albeit rebranded as ‘NST Campus’. Its brand new sister location, NST City, is designed to offer an alternative theatrical space to showcase Nuffield’s inventive and unique original productions.

The John Hansard is more of a hidden gem. Tucked away at the back of campus, its original venue – described by director Woodrow Kernohan as a “specialised” gallery – is now closed ahead of the full opening of Studio 144. When the move is completed, the exhibition will be public-facing and public-serving for the first time. Kernohan and his team’s steely determination to focus their work on the Southampton community has seen John Hansard completely reinvent themselves for their new home. After a series of “housewarming” events (including displaying a Transformer built from a 1988 Ford Fiesta) that coincided with the launch in early February, the gallery opens in full later this spring.

Its neighbour in the South Building is City Eye, a council funded organisation set up to support community filmmaking in Southampton. Although they are by far the smallest of Studio 144’s new occupants, their facilities are still impressive, including a professional recording studio and a suite equipped with both Macs and PCs. But looking beyond the tech, its director Susan Beckett dreams more of a creative space where ideas can be forged, and a generation of young filmmakers can come together to make something Southampton can be proud of.

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Whilst John Hansard and City Eye have shaped their spaces to their own strengths, the 30 million spent on Studio 144 is perhaps felt best in the North Building. A trip to the theatre naturally invites audiences to forget about the real world for a few hours, but there’s much more to NST City than its productions. The aesthetics of its foyer and reception area feel as much a part of the ‘art’ as what plays out on stage, with towering glass windows framing one of the best views in Southampton. As you enjoy the sun setting on the twinkling Solent in the distance, you can enjoy a locally brewed beer or a fine wine from Tyrells, a bar named after a department store that stood on the site for over a hundred years. It’s all part of the experience – just be careful not to miss the start of your show!

But when you do venture into the auditorium, it doesn’t disappoint. The stage is fully flexible, with modular seating that can be chopped and changed depending on the needs of the production. For NST City’s opening production, The Shadow Factory, the theatre is closed in around a giant slab of concrete, brought to life with intricate projections and lighting. The space’s potential for original material is limitless, especially when contrasted with the overtly conventional layouts of NST Campus and the Mayflower Theatre. The “thinking outside the box” nature of the auditorium is perhaps symbolic of what Studio 144 is trying to achieve. This multi-million mammoth of a project is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of home-grown artists right here in Southampton.

The Shadow Factory runs until Saturday 3rd March at NST City. John Hansard Gallery and City Eye are due to open in full to the public in late spring.

Review: Kiri – a harrowing tour-de-force from all involved

This article was originally published via the University of Southampton’s official entertainment magazine, The Edge, on 5th February 2018. The original article can be viewed here.

Be honest, Britain; you were always going to love Kiri. A national treasure (Sarah Lancashire, of Happy Valley and Last Tango), a legendary writer (Jack Thorne, of Cursed Child and This Is England), and a mesmerising whodunnit – it’s a winning formula. Exactly the kind of despair we delight to find at 9pm on Channel 4.

It’s a suitably bleak premise. When nine-year-old Kiri (Felicia Mukasa) is murdered during an unsupervised visit to her birth grandparents, the lives of all involved are irreversibly shattered. With the media spotlight and police investigation relentless in their pursuit of the truth, Kiri’s families – both foster and biological – are driven to desperate measures, whilst social worker Miriam is left questioning the decisions she made on that fateful day.

Thorne’s script moves carefully and elegantly, breaking hearts with each step. Though Lancashire is enrapturing as the quirky yet damaged Miriam, Kiri’s story is most poignant when seen through the eyes of heartbroken foster mother Alice (Lia Williams) and her equally devastated birth grandfather Tobi (Lucian Msamati). Left to battle for ownership of a dead girl, their story cuts raw – an unjust fight with no possible happy ending. Thorne addresses these critical social questions throughout, challenging our perceptions on race and adoption, but still ensures that Kiri retains its dramatic shine. Each scene shimmers with poignance and heartbreak and fury; exhausting but wholesome television.

The first three hours play out almost faultlessly, but the resolution of the ‘whodunnit’ is a little more jarring. The revelation of Kiri’s killer contradicts the difficult lesson Thorne has forced us to swallow – all of these characters are guilty. Despite their ultimately noble intentions, Miriam, Alice and Tobi are all accountable for an innocent girl’s death. The unmasking of a villain is a duff note at the end of this harrowingly beautiful melody.

All four episodes of Kiri are available to watch on All4.

Albums of 2017: Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayers

This article was originally published via the University of Southampton’s official entertainment magazine, The Edge, on 23rd December 2017. It was shortlisted for Best Review at the University Media Ball 2018. The original article can be viewed here.

Cast your minds back a year ago and nobody was taking Stormzy seriously. He was ‘that guy’ who went big on social media and contested the 2015 Christmas number one (ultimately only reaching eighth); best known for a song quoted in ballsy playground banter or across the pub. But while ‘Shut Up’ made twenty-four-year-old Londoner Michael Owuo a viral sensation, its follow-up album Gang Signs & Prayer has made Stormzy a leading man, a versatile firecracker, and a messiah to bring grime to the masses.

‘First Things First’, the album’s opening track, puts the record straight – “I’ve been putting in the work, I’m a rebel with a cause”. It’s a promise that Stormzy delivers on, producing an eclectic debut that shows how big his potential really is. His range is bookended nicely by his two biggest singles of 2017: ‘Big For Your Boots’, a track The Guardian described as “four flawless minutes of chicken shop bravado”; and ‘Blinded By Your Grace’, which I’ll label in response as four flawless minutes of humbled gospel. Elsewhere, there’s introspection on growing up in London (‘Don’t Cry For Me’), whirlwind brass-assisted grime (‘Cold’), and a touching ode to his mother (‘100 Bags’).

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There’s so much versatility that, at times, Gang Signs & Prayer feels more like a mixtape than an album. While Paloma Faith‘s collaboration with Labour journalist Owen Jones raised eyebrows, Stormzy still wins most bizarre feature of 2017 as he welcomes Choice FM presenter Jenny Francis for a smooth interlude. She guides listeners from the soft ‘Velvet’ into GSAP‘s most aggressive track, ‘Mr Skeng’. More worthy of note is the album’s closer, ‘Lay Me Bare’, a raw and angry rap for the 21st Century Man. “Like man’a get low sometimes, so low sometime / Airplane mode on my phone sometimes / Sitting in my house with tears in my face / Can’t answer the door to my bro sometimes.” His honesty is an inspiring message for the depressed and the beaten down in an industry where bravado often masks deep scars.

Deep, mature, but still fun, Gang Signs & Prayer is one of the most groundbreaking debuts of late. Most importantly, it evidences that Stormzy is no one hit wonder or ‘back-up dancer’; he’s a clever, flexible, and charming musician with something new to bring to the table.

Gang Signs & Prayer was released on 24 February via #Merky Records

Viewing Politicians as Human Beings

I’m overly empathetic. I always have been, and I usually consider it to be more of an ‘Achilles Heel’ than a positive thing. I watch people saunter through life with a high degree of self absorption, and think: I wish I could do that. Because – and I might sound self-pitying when I say this – looking around you and seeing all the hurt that exists in the everyday, and feeling that tug at your heart just a little bit, gets really grating after a while.

It’s been a manic 36 hours, a mere 3 of which I have spent asleep. Last night was the night that Donald J. Trump was made the President Elect over Hillary Clinton, against all odds – “the most extraordinary event in politics ever”, if you ask the majority of newscasters. The irony comes in that it occurs just five months after the last “most extraordinary political event”, Britain’s shock exit from the European Union. Where the previously disenchanted members of society have risen up and made for a some rather questionable revolutions in 2016, the previously engaged audience of educated young people like myself are newly forced out and alienated. After all, every democratic decision I’ve ever been old enough to invest myself in has gone completely the opposite way than I wanted it to.

I’m getting off topic; this isn’t another rant about the frankly devastating decision to elect a misogynist racist with no experience to the Leader of the Free World. I want to talk about the concession speech from Hillary Clinton – 10 minutes of television that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Like many others, I view Clinton and Trump as far from the ideal candidates, though I’m pretty sure you can guess which one I preferred. Hillary Clinton has made some very questionable calls in her career – Wikileaks’ exposure of the Clinton Foundation for instance, her nasty smear campaign against dear ol’ Bernie, those emails. None of which are anywhere near as bad as Mr Trump, I hasten to add – God forbid, that Hillary would send some emails whilst doing her job! She’s 69 – I’d like to see my grandma understand rules about private servers. I went into November 8th with slight indignance at the thought that ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton would be gifted with the honourable title of ‘First Female President of the United States of America’. I shouldn’t have been worried.

But as the chips fell into Trump’s lap, not only did I feel a sense of dread, I also felt a pang of empathy for Hillary. Because let’s be honest, while she might not be the best politician in history, she’s given a lot in service of her country. 3o years, serving as First Lady, Senator for New York, and Secretary of State in that time. A resume which really should have been enough to get her in against a man with no experience (whoops, danger of ranting again). It’s also another failed venture for Secretary Clinton, who has pushed so hard to get to the White House in previous years, but failed (and quite rightly so, when she’s up against a candidate like Barack Obama). Now, I don’t care what you say, everyone in life has experienced a setback, not getting a major goal they’ve tried so hard to reach. Imagine that, times a thousand, for what Hillary must be feeling, not only to have lost the presidency when it was so close to her grasp – but to have lost it to a man like Donald Trump.

It may have been the fact I’d only had 3 hours sleep, but I found Hillary Clinton’s concession speech extremely emotionally powerful. I saw her not as a politician, but as a human being; a 69-year-old grandmother, whose 30 years of tireless service to her country has ended on such a sour note as this. My thoughts turned to how incredibly difficult it must have been for her to take to that stage, face the fans that she had let down, and then hear their cheers, despite her failure. To be loved – but not loved enough. To see everything that she and her colleagues have worked so hard on in the last eight years on the brink of being destroyed. To see the values that she, and good moral people, hold so dear – equality, anti-discrimination, kindness – corrupted.

Despite her frankly LEGO-esque hair (has anyone ever seen it move?), her rather robotic walk, and her awkward conversational manner making her hard to relate to, people need to just take a moment to pause and remember that Hillary Clinton is a human being, and shouldn’t be remembered as anything less than a fighter, that kept going until she had nothing left. Perhaps, when I’m feeling a little less tired and more mentally prepared, I’ll attempt to look at Donald Trump as a human being. But right now, I have nothing but contempt for that man.

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