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Deaf, Not Dumb

The mockumentary is a tricky thing and not to be attempted by amateurs, many of whom treat the form like a joke without need of a punch line; damn the filmmaker who thinks it clever and ironic enough to "interview" "real people" "talking" about other "real people" who, of course,...
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The mockumentary is a tricky thing and not to be attempted by amateurs, many of whom treat the form like a joke without need of a punch line; damn the filmmaker who thinks it clever and ironic enough to "interview" "real people" "talking" about other "real people" who, of course, don't exist except inside the cluttered, shuttered mind of a moviemaker who couldn't figure out how to fit his fiction inside the framework of a real narrative, which would take actual work. Worse, the mock doc, when done wrong, always comes out the same, loathing the nobody next door whose idiosyncrasies are exaggerated into freak-show proportions. They're not "mock" because they're phony docs; they're mock because that's precisely what they do -- poke fun at characters the filmmakers hold in contempt, which is a lousy reason to make a movie in the first place. For every Chris Guest movie, for every Bob Roberts, there's a Lisa Picard Is Famous or Burn, Hollywood, Burn or The Big Tease out there waiting to beat you to death with quotation marks.

So why, then, does writer-director Michael Dowse's It's All Gone Pete Tong work so wonderfully, when it's a work of fiction positing itself as a true-story biography of a legendary Ibiza-based DJ named Frankie Wilde, who goes deaf from too much noise and drugs? It arrives complete with talking-head testimonials from the likes of Paul van Dyk, Carl Cox, Lol Hammond, Pete Tong, and other real-life record-spinners who tout Wilde as a reclusive legend and troubled pioneer. ("He's a showman as much as he is a musician," says Tong, his face as straight as the razor Wilde uses to cut his coke.) Interspersed with their accolades are other tales told by phony folks: the record-label boss who says he's "done harder things than drop a deaf DJ," the biographer who explains in a scholarly deadpan how Frankie lost his hearing ("years and years of noise was the basis of his problem," duh), the manager who rambles on about a dream in which he sucks himself off. The only thing missing is the amplifier that goes to 11 (though there's even a subtle nod to that).

It's All Gone Pete Tong -- slang among Cockney ravers for "It's all gone wrong," or so claim the facetious press notes in which nothing's to be believed (or dismissed) -- succeeds primarily because it loves its subject, played with bright eyes and a big heart by British comic turned actor Paul Kaye, whose BBC character Dennis Pennis hassled celebrities years before Sasha Cohen, as Ali G, made his f'real fortune. Kaye, looking like Ralph Fiennes with a mouth full of Shane MacGowan's teeth, begins the movie as a caricature of the DJ scene -- a chain-smoking, coke-snorting, scotch-swilling, scrawny twerp who considers himself "the Imelda Marcos of the flip-flop world." He's a narcissistic ass, capable of sending a crowd of thousands into an ecstatic frenzy at the drop of a needle, but incapable of feeling anything more than the urgent need to fuck the fleshpot pile of tits and thongs secured for him by his American manager Max (Mike Wilmot).

Dowse introduces us to Frankie at the peak of his fame and powers: He's seen in the opening credits descending from the heavens into a throng of sweaty Ibiza partygoers, a crown of thorns atop his head. We meet his model wife Sonja (Kate Magowan), whom Frankie met while making the ridiculous video screened almost in its entirety. They're the kind of couple who smoke while they play tennis, who come up with half-assed ideas they consider brilliant (he wants to market his own line of hummus; she thinks he ought to call his next record Frankie Hummus), who share lovers in front of each other. He's perched high atop Glowstick Mountain, from which the fall is quick and brutal: One minute he's watching a football match on the telly, the next he can hear only the ringing in the ears that precedes his going totally, maddeningly deaf. He proceeds to go slightly insane, believing that "total silence" will cure his condition. Frankie, too, is visited often by the Coke Badger, a giant drooling creature that bleeds white powder.

What could have been a daft, sick joke -- the equivalent of Spinal Tap's drummer exploding on stage -- becomes a sweet and comic love story, as Frankie, shaggy and self-loathing, emerges from his yearlong funk to find a woman who teaches him to lip-read (Beatriz Batarda) and helps him discover ways to feel and see sound. (This involves strapping on speakers with flip-flops attached to the top, so Frankie can feel the music through his gnarled toes.) He finally finishes his new record, only to see his work exploited by Max and the label, who want to make him an idol to the deaf kids screaming for one (only nobody can hear them, hahahaha). But Frankie's too grown up now for such garish nonsense; the boy, in his late 30s, at last becomes a man -- an apt metaphor for a club scene built on the idea of eternal youth, at least 'til the sun comes up and the drugs wear off. He will disappear again -- to where and to what, we're meant to have no idea. But the movie leaves us with a broad, genuine smile, not the smirk borne of so many mockumentaries. This is phony, absolutely, but the good feeling it leaves behind is plenty real.

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