Originally written for LeftLion.
Following the success of Sound It Out, which took a fond look at Teesside’s last surviving record shop, Nottingham director’s Jeanie Finlay’s latest documentary, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, is now on general release across the UK. A day before its commercial opening night in Dundee, the original home of its central characters, Broadway hosted a special screening and Q&A, hosted by Sarah Lutton, programme advisor for the London Film Festival.
As Jeanie Finlay explained, the film-making process was littered with obstacles. Its two protagonists were no longer on speaking terms, and securing permission to film their story proved to be a lengthy uphill struggle. Given the breathtaking scale of the deception which the movie documents, this is perhaps scarcely surprising.
Thirteen years ago, Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain were a pair of talented and ambitious hip hop MCs, seeking a foothold in the music industry, but constantly thwarted by the mere fact of their Scottishness. At an audition for Warner Brothers, they were practically laughed out of the room, dismissed as “the rapping Proclaimers.”
However, once Boyd and Bain decided to re-invent themselves as Silibil ‘n Brains – a bratty, hell-raising and downright obnoxious skate-rap duo from Huntington Beach in California – doors that had previously been closed suddenly swung open. Signed up in 2004 by showbiz mogul Jonathan Shalit, manager of the likes of Charlotte Church, Myleene Klass and N-Dubz, they soon found themselves larging it in London on a hefty advance, widely tipped as rap’s Next Big Thing.
Throughout this time, Billy and Gavin – neither of whom had ever visited the USA – played their Silibil ‘n Brains roles to perfection, fooling everyone they met and never letting their meticulously constructed personas slip for a second. Consumed by their alter-egos, they partied hard and behaved atrociously, as Gavin’s obsessively captured video footage demonstrates. The mask only threatened to slip once: backstage at the Brit Awards, as a bemused Daniel Bedingfield perceptively queried Billy’s Californian accent. (“But I thought you were Scottish?”)
If the era of social media had dawned a few years earlier, Silibil ‘n Brains wouldn’t have lasted five minutes; one tweet from a former classmate, and the game would have been up. But as the deception continued unchallenged, the internal tensions grew, ultimately reaching a breaking point which torpedoed Billy and Gavin’s friendship.
Cutting between archive footage, present-day interviews with the chastened and reflective pair (conducted separately, and spread over several years), and Jon Burgerman’s comic animated re-stagings of certain key scenes, the film skilfully tells a story that is by turns funny, shocking, touching and agonising. Having wormed their way into a subculture that sets great store on “keeping it real”, the fakers had unwittingly signed a Faustian pact – and while their downfall might have been inevitable, their failure to foresee it lends them an “innocents abroad” quality that even the worst of their excesses cannot fully smother.
For Jeanie Finlay, “trying to navigate between two known liars” was an immensely challenging process, as she sought to unpick the truth from a pair of unreliable witnesses whose mutual hostility remained undimmed. “I felt like a terrible divorce lawyer”, she confessed, fielding questions after the screening.
The tale does have a happier coda, though. The Great Hip Hop Hoax received its world premiere earlier this year, at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, and both Gavin and Billy flew over with Jeanie for the occasion, reunited for the first time since their bust-up. Buoyed the renewed interest, they are now rumoured to be working on a comeback album. Perhaps there’s a loophole in that Faustian pact after all.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
He might be known as “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure”, but John Otway has a knack of coming up trumps. Originally booked into one of Broadway’s smaller screening rooms, unexpectedly high advance sales ensured that Thursday’s one-off screening of Otway The Movie – a home-made, fan-funded documentary, charting his chaotic forty-year career in the music business – was bumped up at the last minute, to the biggest room in the house. On learning the news, his audience cheered him to the rafters.
I had been booked to introduce the film, and to talk with the great man on stage after the screening. Upon arrival, I was led into the main bar, where Otway was already holding court with some of his fans – an uncommonly eager and supportive bunch. We shook hands. An awkward conversational pause ensued. “Have you done this sort of thing before?” he asked. Oh, he’s a sharp one.
John stayed at the back of the room for my preamble, which compared and contrasted the resourcefulness of the Otway fan base – they all but invented crowd-funding, many years ago – with the more limited opportunities on offer to the fans of One Direction – who had an opening night of their own to attend, round the corner at Cineworld.
The movie combined plentiful archive footage- Otway has always been a keen documenter of his own life – with classroom scenes, in which the sixty-year old cult hero instructed a bunch of bemused-looking teenagers on how to make it in the music business.
Coming from someone who had to wait 25 years between his first and second hit singles, this might have seemed a bit rich, but Otway is a born survivor, with an unshakeable belief that all will turn out well in the end.
Otway’s second brush with the charts, thanks to a brilliantly orchestrated campaign that took on the vested interests of the music industry and succeeded against all the odds, was explained in detail. Woolworths, who were still a very big deal back in 2002, had refused to stock his second hit, Bunsen Burner, even when it entered the charts at Number Nine. A few years later, as we were cheerfully reminded, the retail chain went bust, in a stroke of divine justice which brought the biggest cheer of the night.
As the lengthy credits rolled, listing the many hundreds of crowd-funding fans by name, John joined me onstage for a chat and an audience Q&A. He had turned down the offer of a table and chairs (“far too serious”) in favour of perching on the edge of the stage. (“That’s more punk rock, isn’t it?”)
Once in front of an audience, the amiably low-key fellow I’d met earlier transformed into the effortlessly hilarious character that we knew and loved. It felt as if he was coming into his own, and becoming more fully himself. Perhaps that would account for his insatiable appetite for performing; after all, it has been a full twenty years since he celebrated his 2000th show.
Knowing what you know now, asked one fan, would you have rather lived the life of the superstar you never became, or has your chequered career enriched you in ways that success never could? “That’s the most stupid question I’ve ever been asked!” Otway replied. “OF COURSE I’d rather have been a superstar! That’s all I ever wanted!”
John’s other great knack is for inspiring his fans to mobilise and campaign on his behalf. For his fiftieth birthday, they gave him a second hit single. For his sixtieth birthday, they gave him a movie: premiered in Leicester Square, taken to the Cannes Film Festival, and soon to be eligible for a BAFTA. And so it was that I found myself, hypnotised by his spell, bravely launching a campaign to get him onto the main stage at Rock City. (“Who’s in?” I yelled. “We are!” they replied.) Well, many stranger things have happened. DHP, please take note.
When all is said and done, perhaps the wisest words lie in the movie’s subtitle. John Otway isn’t rock and roll’s biggest failure, he isn’t its worst failure, and he most certainly isn’t its most hopeless failure. He is far more than that. He is “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure” – and for that, we must salute him.
Weekend is director Andrew Haigh’s second feature-length movie – his first being Greek Pete, a semi-fictionalised documentary about a year in the life of a rent boy. The emphasis on representing aspects of contemporary gay identity persists in Weekend, as does the raw, intimate, ultra-naturalistic approach – but here the characters and situations are, for all their true-to-life plausibility, entirely fictional.
The film was shot in Nottingham, and a large chunk of the action takes place inside one of the brutalist concrete apartment blocks which sit next to the Savoy Cinema in Lenton. Lingering – and surprisingly beautiful – exterior shots of the estate, which some out-of-towners might recognise from the 2007 Joy Division biopic Control, punctuate many of the scenes.
One of the flats belongs to Russell, a softly spoken and rather solitary man who works as an attendant at a swimming pool. It’s Friday night, and after spending an evening with his straight mates, Russell ends up taking a drunken detour to Propaganda, a large late-night gay bar in the Lace Market. Somehow or other, and it’s not made exactly clear how (although the courtship ritual does seem to involve a measure of pointed staring in the club bogs), he picks up a fit-looking stranger and brings him home for sex.
So far, so stock. But as the rest of the weekend progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that for Russell and his pick-up – an art gallery worker called Glen – this is to be no ordinary one-night stand. Initially, they don’t look like a promising match. Although Russell isn’t exactly closeted, he retains a cautious privacy as regards his sexuality. To out-and-proud Glen, this reads like a cop-out, and a cue for Glen to cast himself as something of a consciousness-raiser. But it’s a fine line between consciousness-raising and condescension, and Glen’s tart little lectures do him no favours as a sympathetic character. Neither does his scorn for the second-hand dowdiness of Russell’s flat – an old-lady sofa, a mug tree – although Russell provides a convincing aesthetic justification for his choices, and he’s hip enough to have a LeftLion sticker on his door (yay!) and John Grant’s album on his stereo.
Rather than going their separate ways after what could easily have been just a one-night stand, the couple start to hang out together. They meet Glen’s friends in another city centre bar, before heading for the Goose Fair and returning to Lenton. Spliffs are rolled, lines are snorted, sex is had, life stories are shared, and defences are lowered, revealing a more complex arrangement of strengths, weaknesses and interlocking emotional needs.
Although Nottingham audiences might be tempted to niggle at some of the geographical details – there’s no tram line between Derby Road and the Lace Market, for instance – what emerges is an arrestingly convincing exposition of human relationships, and a telling examination of contemporary gay life. The dialogue rings true, the lone sex scene is superbly well-drawn, and only the drug-taking fails to fully convince; Glen and Russell either have an abnormally high tolerance for consciousness-bending substances, or else they’ve been palmed off with Oxo cubes and chalk dust, and know no better.
Ahead of Weekend’s national release on Friday 4 November, Broadway are hosting a preview screening on Tuesday 1, followed by a Q&A with director Andrew Haigh and Gregory Woods, Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. The film has already been garlanded with awards in the US, where it emerged as the surprise hit of the SXSW Film Festival, and Stateside box-office takings have been hearteningly brisk. In the words of the New York Times, Haigh’s film is “perfectly realised – a bracing, present-tense exploration of sex, intimacy and love” – and LeftLion can only concur with its judgement.