Photo: Greg Dunn
Shane Hennessy goes in search of director, Niall McCann who’s Lost in France.
There’s a lot more to Lost in France, Niall McCann’s latest documentary about the Chemikal Underground record label, than the music and the people involved in it. The stark contrast of the music industry and city of Glasgow, the two scenes in which the label rose to prominence, between then and now is almost as compelling as the stories told throughout. Neither the industry nor the city in its modern form can allow for a similar venture like Chemical Underground to thrive.
Social welfare is a recurring theme in the film for instance. “Nowadays”, McCann laments, ’the biggest enemy in society seems to be someone on the dole’. McCann is open and very much thankful for his own usage of social welfare in order to follow through on his personal ambitions.
“I was on the dole for a long period while I was making this, enrolling in a few courses. The demonization of people on welfare is interesting these days, because the dole is integral to the arts. The continued dismantling of public and political life where now it seems less about helping people and more about punishing them – for something that has nothing to do with them.”
It’s in this sense that Lost in France becomes about more than its subjects, or the music deriving from them, it’s about art and expression in all its forms. A passion project five years in the making, one gets the feeling from speaking with McCann that his affinity with this subject runs far deeper than his love for the music it spawned.
“At some point we need to have a discussion about whether we care about the arts, people aren’t given any time anymore. For a project like Lost in France, as soon as you see money for it you just owe it all to people. And don’t get me wrong, I’m lucky to have a career doing what I’m doing, but I’m still hoping that I’m not doing 9-5 for a while.”
Unlike most other music documentaries of the retrospective variety, we’re not fawning over global icons reminiscing about the good old days they’ve since been saved from.
“Some of these guys are struggling, Hubby (RM Hubbard) recently had to post on his Facebook that he was in a bad place financially and asked people to buy his new EP, he got a good response but it’s not easy for people to do that. Stewart Henderson still runs Chemikal Records, but he’s recently finished his training to become a fireman so he can keep the label going. These are the sacrifices people are willing to make. These guys can’t get by on their music alone.”
Which would make one think that the opportunity to have a documentary made about the folks involved at the label would represent some much needed exposure and income, but McCann said that wasn’t quite the case.
“When I first approached them there wasn’t a whole lot of willingness to make the film, Chemikal was on its knees and with the state of the music industry currently, the guys there were more interested in keeping it afloat than celebrating its legacy. The fact that I’m not from Glasgow probably worked in my favor, I think, because I was new and a bit different.”
With the catalogue available with which to score the film, one can only imagine the turmoil that came with choosing what songs to leave out rather than which ones to put in. But certain scenes, such as RM Hubbard’s sombre instrumentals in one of the film’s more reflective segments, makes it impossible to think of anything more fitting. But were director and musicians always in agreement with how, or how often, their music was used?
“Hubby is incredibly talented, I couldn’t possibly leave his music out, but it is an ensemble piece so you can’t please everyone all the time. Getting the balance between telling the different stories and moving on was difficult.
In many ways the songs picked themselves, We had no idea the Maurons were going to play ‘Jacqueline’ for instance. But I asked Hubby to play ‘False Bride’, so I had an idea of what I wanted but it was dictated by the people we brought. And obviously in the story of the label, the Bis single being on top of the pops was a very important moment so that had to feature.”
The characters themselves that appear in the film are portrayed as just that – themselves. Their mature and measured outlook, along with their jaded expressions as they ponder what could have been is often sobering. But one could be critical of the film for suppressing tension with nostalgia, whether it’s recanting old tales from the back of the bus or going through old photos over pints. But there are some moments shared between them that border on outright resentment. Paul Savage and his wife Emma Pollock share a playful but sincere joke and their own expense about getting married. “They’re still a couple,” Niall points out. “But to be honest, when people look at a married couple after so many years of marriage and say “why don’t they just say they love each other?”…To me that says more about them than the people they’re talking about.”
For all the talk in the movie about market forces precipitating the band’s decline, how much was in-fighting responsible for things going awry?
“When money’s tight it affects relationships, so in that sense I think market forces was undoubtedly the biggest effect. It’s difficult to separate the person from the professional when you’re this immersed in what you do. I sensed a lot of regret with regards to The Delgado’s breaking up. It was much more difficult for Emma (Pollock) to make it as a solo singer than as lead singer of The Delgados. They’re open enough with each other to share these moments on camera, but ultimately what’s kept the whole thing together is that they love each other, all of them. And they all believe in making art.”
McCann is strident with his views towards the funding of artistic ventures in Ireland and Glasgow as well.
“The music industry, for now, certainly on the level of Chemical Records – it’s fucked.”
But that’s not to say that he’s pessimistic about its future. Glasgow was the epicenter of the UK’s music scene, the rise and fall of Chemical Underground was inextricably tied to the city’s cultural heyday, with more music halls than in any other city in Europe. But McCann insists the interest is still alive and well, if a little more understated.
“Any time you go into a pub in Glasgow the people that work there are in bands. The lead singer of Twilight Sad (who is featured in the movie) was working for Rock Action, Mogwai’s record label.
So now it’s shifted to becoming more a part-time thing or a hobby, which is fine – people can still make an album – but they mightn’t make it to their third or fourth even they make something spectacular.”
That all bodes relatively well for the art scene over there, but what about closer to home? McCann, by now an established filmmaker promoting his third feature film, still struggles to get his projects off the ground.
“I see myself as a filmmaker, everything I do outside of that is to get enough money so I can make my next film. Constantly dwindling budgets aren’t good for anyone, including the audiences. I just think, without being too puritanical, that if you do a good job in making something that’s well received, you should be given the chance to work with a budget.”
While citing Keith Potter as one of the main driving forces behind the recent success of Irish films (“…he transformed the board as far as I’m concerned” ), he doesn’t afford as much clemency to people who have shown slightly less gratitude to the IFB.
“I don’t think the Film Board should ever fund John Michael McDonagh again after what he said about Irish films; he’s obviously an ego-maniac. I thought Calvary was fucking awful and The Guard was a load of shit too, not to mention offensive. I don’t like misanthropy and he and his brother (Martin McDonagh, In Bruges, 7 Psychopaths) write movies without a single likable character in them. As an Irish filmmaker myself I think it’s offensive what he said, and it’s amazing that he’d say it after being funded by the Irish Film Board. It troubles me that if he was someone whose films weren’t as financially rewarding that it would finish him, but that’s the problem with living in a market economy.”
This is a theme inflected throughout Lost in Paris as well, the market mechanics that allowed for the space in which bands like the Delgado’s and Mogwai to flourish are diminishing as genres more conducive to the ever increasing pace of the music industry grow in popularity.
“With more music out there more than ever, it’s more white noise than music now. But it helps some genres of music more than others, electronic and dance is much more accessible to produce but if you’re in a band that needs to get into a studio to make something then it’s not that much easier than before.”
McCann’s next project is a collaboration with Adrian Crowley with the working title Long Distance Swimmer, which is currently in the writing phase.
“We want to explore creativity and what an artist really is, but also trying to demythologize it, to show people the more difficult, the more human aspect of it. It’s going to be someway subjective.”
For now the focus is on Lost in France. “It’s not just for the fans of the music,” McCann insists, “I think everybody will appreciate it on some level, it’s the people that go to see the movie that make movies like this happen.”
It’s out today. Get along and watch it.
Screenings and Q&As with Niall McCann, Emma Pollock and RM Hubbert:
6.15pm – 03/03 – IFI Dublin – Tickets
6.30pm – 04/03 – The Gate Cork – Tickets
6.30pm – 05/03 – EYE Galway – Tickets
There are a series of gigs around Ireland that will accompany the film’s release including Emma Pollock & RM Hubbert LIVE:
Friday March 3rd – The Workman’s Club, Dublin
Saturday March 4th – Connolly’s of Leap, Cork
Sunday March 5th – Roisin Dubh, Galway