Sydney Film Festival review: Pulp, A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (d. Florian Harbicht, 2014)

It’s a bold gambit opening the film with live footage of Common People, voted the best song of the 90s by NME. But it’s also the logical starting point, being the ultimate distillation of the band’s ability to take real angst and venom and blow it up into something anthemic and communal. The very next scene sees bandleader Jarvis Cocker changing a tire on a car in a tired looking street. In a low-angle shot, Cocker’s gangly frame fills the screen. This clash of triumphant celebration and ordinariness is the heart of the film, and the heart of Pulp’s enduring appeal.

This isn’t just a film about Pulp, though, it’s about the city that spawned them and how they fit into it. Sheffield is seen as a place where it’s always overcast and the highest praise anyone doles out is “it’s alright”. Yet it has its charm. Bomar, a musician seen sitting on the side of a canal in a fur coat, tells of how he once left his hometown for London, only to be mugged twice in a day and find himself sitting in a puddle screaming about his squalid new surrounds. He got a bus back to Sheffield, where a friend nursed him back to health with booze and a Pulp CD on a pub’s PA. In Sheffield you still get mugged, he explains, but at least here you usually know the person mugging you.

Director Florian Harbicht and company must have talked to some people that didn’t come out with absolute gold, but none of them have made the final cut, a lean 90 minutes. There are brilliant vox pops with unfailingly eccentric Sheffield residents, footage of fans congregating on the steps of their farewell shindig, people sweeping up confetti at the end of the show, the tour manager corralling the band and Cocker organising medicines and ointments for the various ailments of his aging bandmates. Here, the mundane and the logistical are just as essential as the soul-stirring. Pulp… is a film that centres around a triumphant farewell show but isn’t dominated by it. Better than most music films, it acutely understands that the band themselves are only a small part of something greater than the sum of its parts.

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