Film and TV

Pulp's Jarvis Cocker Is Anything but Common People

A blonde musician sporting purple eyeliner and a leopard print jacket stares directly into the lens and asks the camera operator, "What are you trying to do? Get a snapshot into Sheffield life? The hopes and dreams of the common man?" The Sheffield he is referring to is the city in England where the legendary British band Pulp both originated and played their final tour, and is the setting for a new documentary about the band titled Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets. The film follows the band as they navigate December 8, 2012, the day of their final show in the United Kingdom.

It's clear from the opening scenes that the only uncommon person in the film is lead singer Jarvis Cocker, who sings Pulp's anthem "Common People" with all the strut and swagger of Mick Jagger. After the show, he's is wrapped in a poncho, drinking a glass of wine as he tells the camera that he thinks of himself as someone who is ordinary. The scenes afterwards attempt to prove his point; he is shown changing a flat tire on his car, riding a bike, and feeding the birds.

The film makes it clear that no one else agrees with his self-assessment.

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The local Sheffield girls' soccer team, coached by Pulp drummer Nick Banks, boasts the band's logo on their jerseys. An American fan from Atlanta, Georgia, travels to Sheffield to see Cocker and company because she's been a fan since she was 16 and can relate to the songwriter's lyrics about single parents because she is one herself. Scenes of the band performing their song "Underwear" are shown as another fan describes the pair of panties she made for herself to show her devotion to the band (They say "Pulp" in the front and "Jarvis" in the rear). Former band member (and Cocker's friend) Richard Hawley remains impressed with the band's body of work. Pulp's catalog is even the subject of a college lecture. The professor leading the discussion quips, "It's rare for anyone to write about sex well. It's really weird that a skinny bloke from Sheffield just happens to be really good at it. They're about embarrassments and mess and clothes."

The film, directed by New Zealand filmmaker Florian Habicht, also serves as an anthropological study of a working class English city and how a young songwriter managed to capture its struggles and routines when he formed Pulp at the age of fifteen. There are numerous person on the street interviews, mostly from people who seem to be outside of Pulp's target demographic. Pre-teens can't seem to wrap their head around "Disco 2000" and grandmothers think it's balderdash that they're even being asked about attending the concert. The true fans are waiting outside the arena, singing and carrying on as they wait for the doors to open. When Pulp last played Sheffield in 1988, it was catastrophic. The band cryptically refers to it as "The Day that Never Happened." The tour seems to be a way for them to make things right.

After Pulp went on hiatus in 2002, the band members seemed almost relieved to be taking time off, and each of them wrestled with the prospect of getting back together again. Guitarist Mark Webber talks about how he used to play with his back toward the audience when they would tour in the late 90's because he felt miserable and "like a total fake." Candida Doyle, who has suffered with rheumatoid arthritis since she was 16, was relieved that she could still play keyboards after the band reunited and began rehearsing again. Cocker even expresses regret that Pulp didn't end the way that he would've liked. He admits he wants to relive the songs he wrote decades ago again.

As candid as the band members are about the band's various ups and downs, there is one moment of the film that is simultaneously delightful and dishonest. As Cocker describes the genesis of the song "Help The Aged," the film cuts to a dining room full of senior citizens belting out a rendition of the track. It's obviously staged, which somewhat discredits the integrity of the film. However, at one point Cocker is asked if there is a time where he isn't performing. "When I'm sleeping," he replies. Those elderly people were performing, too, and are the very people--common people--who Cocker is attempting to identify himself with. Only they'll never identify with him. Not one bit. As he jumps up and down on stage singing about how he wants to live like common people, it's obvious he became the girl from Greece, not the guy who rents the flat above the shop, cuts his hair and gets a job. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets is an interesting snapshot of an artist attempting to reconcile himself with the legacy he created.

Pulp: A Movie About Life, Death, and Supemarkets is scheduled to screen at FilmBar on Wednesday, November 19.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil