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Levellers - (DVD) A Curious Life

  by Harry Sherriff

published: 21 / 5 / 2015

Levellers - (DVD) A Curious Life


Harry Sherriff finds new Levellers documentary 'A Curious Life' poorly structured and only of appeal to die-hard fans

'A Curious Life' opens with Jeremy Cunningham, artist and bassist in folk punk band Levellers walking through a messy house showing us his collection of soft toys shaped like squids. The film is very lo-fi and composed of archive footage from as far back as the mid 80’s intercut with what the film is being shot on in the present, which I assume is DSLR footage. After Jeremy gives us a tour of his living room complete with his collection of PHDs written by other people and introduces us to the pet seagulls he feeds in his garden we meet his parents. Up to this point I’m pretty much fascinated with Jeremy, his artistic talent and his doting parents’ stories really add weight to the documentary. If the documentary was just about Jeremy it would be great, but sadly it’s not. The film is 75 minutes long and it seems oddly structured. It hasn't got the firm narrative spine as something like 'DIG!' or 'Searching for Sugarman'. Is it fair to compare 'A Curious Life' to two of the best music documentaries ever made? Probably not, but I had watched them recently and when you’re dealing with as fascinating a person as Jeremy Cunningham I felt more could have been done. Cunningham as well as being the bassist with the Levellers made films when he was younger and at fourteen made an incredibly advanced stop-motion animation that would have won an award from the BBC, but it was too gory. His parents reminisce over the BBC award that wasn’t saying, “We thought he was going to go on and make films.” You can tell a part of them regret he didn’t pursue this but they come across so happy with him and his achievements. Levellers artwork decorates their small house. Jeremy’s parents’ stories are intercut with us meeting the band in the present day and, although this is done well from a film editing perspective, this is also where the film loses me. The compelling Jeremy is lost to the story of a band of which I am not a great fan and I feel alienated. I quickly realise that this documentary although watchable is really for die hard Levellers fans. It covers the forming of the band due in part to Jeremy trying to get off with the frontman’s then girlfriend, the early tours, the peak of their fame and the genesis for the Beautiful Days Festival. One of the most interesting part of the documentary is the Levellers' successful Glastonbury shows, and their on stage antics against festival founder Michael Eavis. “Michael Eavis says he doesn’t like swearing. What a Cunt,” they shout whilst playing the Pyramid Stage. Something that left a bitter taste in Eavis’ mouth although he invited them back two years late to headline. This brilliant section is intercut with a harsh interview with Eavis who comments “They see their career through rose tinted glasses. I’m more realistic.” Another great section of the documentary is the Levellers’ relationship with the music critics and the 'NME' at the time. Jeremy actually reads out terrible reviews he’s never read before, for some reason whilst sitting on a toilet with an open door cubicle. The reviews are scathing to the point of hilarity. Weirdly though during this shot someone stands in the cubicle next to Jeremy and takes a wee. A moment that is in keeping with the film’s aesthetic but still bizarre. Overall 'A Curious Life' is a very watchable documentary but not the type of film that I would mention to anyone other than huge Levellers fans. I wish it strived for more and was accessible to anyone. The sign of a great documentary is taking something focussed and unique and spinning the universal onto it. Even though the film is 75 minutes. it seems poorly structured and there are dull sections. Here is a band that by the late 1990s had seven consecutive Gold Albums and this is all shown in montage. Jeremy opens up about how the fame had a negative impact on him but even this is sort of glazed over. The end point for these filmmakers would be just the juicy beginning for filmmakers like Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield. I feel with 'A Curious Life' I expected there to be more of a low at some point. There are allusions to drugs and mental problems but you never see any of this in the film. Early on in the film Jeremy briefly mentions anxiety and panic attacks he suffered from when he was nineteen in relation to a piece of art he painted. At this point I assume the documentary is going to go down a more personal route about Jeremy but this sadly never happens, and I’m left unfulfilled considering he’s such an interesting multi-talented man. The last ten minutes is the first time Jeremy talks about his heroin addiction but it’s too late. The interview asks if it is still a problem and he says, “Yes, it is going to be a problem for the rest of my life, That’s why I see a doctor,” and we cut to the band members all answering why they think the band have managed to stay together. The consensus here is because the band was a democracy. At the end the final message seems to be ‘How did this band manage to stay together through so much drugs and chaos?’ This chaos isn’t really documented, so you have no context of their achievement. It is special in modern times for a band to stay together for more than two albums, let alone twenty-five years but I wish the filmmakers delved that little deeper when it came to the more dramatic moments in the band’s history.

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