Thursday, January 15, 2015

In Which No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers Gets Reviewed By This Yank Manics Fan

I'm an American and a Manic Street Preachers fan which, as someone in this fine film says, makes one lonely. But now, at least, I can say that there's a film that finally presents a full, rich picture of this great band and highlights what makes them, and their followers, such a unique proposition in an age of disposable pop.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers is the product of an American film-maker. Elizabeth Marcus had been working on this project for years and the results of her extraordinary access to the band are now hitting screens in the UK. She and her crew have done an amazing job at shining a light on the Manics and providing insights into why the band is so loved. The film covers a lot of territory and it manages to pack a wealth of Manics history into a neat package. There's enough here to tell the Manics story concisely to a new or casual fan, and certainly enough peeks behind the curtain at James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, Sean Moore, and Richey Edwards to please any long-term fan of this Welsh group.

I persisted and was able to see No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers early, legally, and I am here to share my thoughts. I don't often write about the Manic Street Preachers precisely because they are so special to me. I always fear that I'm going to gush too much as I attempt to put my love for the band's music into words. I should warn a reader that this is one of those times when I'm probably going to gush a bit. And deservedly so 'cause this film is great.

Early on in No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers there's a clip of bassist/lyricist Nicky Wire trying to explain the appeal of the band. And, like Pete Townshend in the past when he'd talk about his own band, Nicky hits the nail on the head in a flash of brainy insight into the process of making rock-and-roll:

"...the illusion of rock-and-roll: On stage, we kind of suspend our disbelief and become rock-and-roll in its purest form. Besides that, we were always about debunking a certain mythology, really, even though we were in love with that mythology."

And that's it in a nutshell. Being smarter than any other Rock Stars out there means that these guys know the ultimate foolishness of pursuing that Rock Star mythology. Manic Street Preachers are a band of guys who are actively working at being a Great Rock Band and who are smart enough to know the limitations of such a thing. And knowing the limitations of the thing keeps them grounded and a bit less pretentious than they'd otherwise become.

It comes down to the fact that these 3 guys make Art with a capital "A" and remain, as this film so perfectly shows, modest human beings. That is no mean feat in this era and the clips here remove some of the "romantic" -- a word James Dean Bradfield uses in the film -- notions about creating, writing, and performing music. And if this film does a great job at connecting the creation of Art with everyday life and how that process works, it also does something else: it humanizes the late Richey Edwards -- the one Manic who didn't maintain his grounding -- without diminishing his Art.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers succeeds in humanizing these guys to such an extent that their monumental artistic achievements -- The Holy Bible (1994), Everything Must Go (1996), etc. -- seem even more substantial.

"These guys are just regular fellas. How did they create something as beautiful as 'A Design for Life'?" is something that ran through my head while I was watching this doc.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that this film is as much about the Manic Street Preachers as it is about how to create a piece of art without losing your connection to reality. Remarkably modest, serious when they need to be, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore remain grounded and No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers shows precisely how that is possible.

Part of that process of humanizing the guys in Manic Street Preachers involves a look at the band's fans. Marcus and producer Kurt Engfehr wisely eschew the typical Rock Doc device of having a bunch of critics explain the group. If anything, the Manic Street Preachers can best be explained by the band members themselves and their very passionate fans.

When I first got into this band in a big way, there was still that "old fans vs. new fans" divide out there. It seemed as if there were fans of The Holy Bible (1994) and the earlier stuff and fans of the newer post-Richey material and the two camps sometimes didn't seem to overlap a lot. There really was a divide for a spell. Now, that divide doesn't seem as big a deal and the film hints at that a tiny bit and the reason why there isn't a gap anymore between old fans and new ones (the band have revisited their past by acknowledging and making sense of it as they further calibrate their own legacy and mythology -- and No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers shows that process at work among the band members, I'd offer).

The most remarkable thing I can say as a Manics fan about this portion of the film is that it seems as if James, Nicky, and Sean have found a way to finally handle the legacy of Richey. For a fan like myself who got into the band heavily around 1997-1998, it always seemed that the earlier version of the band was defined in terms around Richey Edwards. He was a large figure and his legacy is deservedly honored but No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers allows the surviving members of the band to wrap their heads around the enigma and myth of Mr. Edwards and place Richey's legacy in the context of the larger, longer career of the band itself.

And that sounds a bit pretentious but necessarily so. What this film illustrates is that the Manic Street Preachers were a band forced to change the very way they made Art as a result of the very real tragedy of losing their friend and band-mate in 1995. That they survived, as a 3-piece, and created one of the greatest singles of all time in the process makes their story as a band all the more special and -- dare I say it? -- touching.

As Nicky Wire so eloquently summarizes that series of events:

"I guess out of all that came some kind of joyous melancholia..."

And then the process began of communicating their big ideas to the masses, to paraphrase a frequent explanation of the band's purpose post-Richey. And "A Design for Life" became the ultimate anthem even if one gets a sense that in the heyday of Britpop a lot of listeners didn't quite understand the sentiment at times. But now, in retrospect, and as No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers shows, that song and the story of its making have become a sort of lovely summation of the band's instinct to persevere, survive, and thrive.

I won't try to relay all the great bits in this film 'cause that would rob a viewer of some special pleasures when they watch No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers but I will say that the scene where the band meets Rush is a blast. I have been a hardcore devoted fan of a few trios in my life -- Husker Du, The Jam, Manic Street Preachers (post-Richey), and Rush -- and it was a real joy to see Nicky and James meet up with Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee. I will say that the way I obsessed over Rush lyrics at 14 is sorta the way I obsess over Manics lyrics now a handful of decades later. This scene in the film hits at the nature of rock fandom as we see Nicky and James become the sort of fans we've previously seen in the movie.

And there's some larger truth about the Manics themselves in this section of the film. They understand their rabid fans 'cause they themselves were precisely the same sort of rabid fans of bands back in "1985", to reference one of my faves from the criminally underrated Lifeblood (2004). Unashamed to admit what they cribbed from early on -- interviews around the time of Generation Terrorists (1992) shine a light on what they were inspired by -- the lads in Manic Street Preachers are great at explaining their own music in context of what spoke to them as young fans. Is it any wonder that in the film they seem such naturals at the fan meet-and-greet rigmarole?

On many, many levels No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers is a remarkable film. There's enough here to make me very happy as a fan of the Manic Street Preachers and just enough to get even casual fans -- those who own only one or two Manics albums -- more involved in the Manics and their story.

And the very nature of the film adds to the success with which Elizabeth Marcus tells the band's story. As she explains in a bit of advance press for No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers:

"I didn't want to make a typical rock doc -- a chronological story," says Elizabeth, who directed and co-produced No Manifesto with partner Kurt Engfehr (Bowling For Columbine).

The Manics' aesthetic is to be a collage -- to put together things that interest them and that may not fit together in an obvious way at first glance but have an underlying connection. I wanted to make a film like that -- one that looks and feels more like a scrapbook than a narrative."

Really, it's hard -- no, impossible -- for me to be the least bit objective about No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. If I have any criticisms they are 1) very minor ones and 2) ones of such a nature that they would have meaning only for the hardest of hardcore Manics fans.

As for what possible further praise I can give this film? No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers makes me like the band more than I already did and that's an amazing thing to say. If anything, I feel as if I've seen the real people behind the songs that have meant so much to me for so long. And when I go to hit "play" on tracks from Send Away the Tigers (2007) the next time, I'll probably be replaying scenes from this film in my head. I'll feel, thanks to this film, that I've been given some unique insight into the inner workings of Manic Street Preachers as a functioning band and that's an awesome feeling for a fan to have.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers is what a fan would film had he or she been given access to the Manics. Elizabeth Marcus is clearly a fan of the band, she was given that access, and she ending up crafting a loving portrait of these Welsh legends.

I cannot imagine any Manic Street Preachers fan being unhappy with No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. Manics fans should seek this out as should anyone interested in the process of creating rock music in the 21st century.

Please visit the official website or official Facebook page, or the November FIlms website, for further details on No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers.