Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (Jeanie Finlay, 2015)

ORION: The Man Who Would Be King (12A), the latest feature documentary from award-winning director Jeanie Finlay (Glimmer Films) is released into UK cinemas from Friday 25 September and has received distribution support to enhance this theatrical release from Creative England and Ffilm Cymru Wales.

Orion tells the story of Jimmy Ellis, an American singer with a natural voice that drew unavoidable similarities to Elvis Presley. In the aftermath of Elvis’s death in 1977, music producer Shelby Singleton of Sun Records played on the conspiracy theories about Elvis having faked his own death and created Orion – a masked singer with a mysterious past who had the look and sound of Elvis whilst never laying claim to being the man himself. For four years success lay in the hands of Ellis as he toured and rode the waves of popularity, but frustrations crept in about the public perception of him and the deals he had signed and he finally broke away from his deal in some style.

This documentary was spawned by a chance purchase at a Nottingham market, where director Jeanie Finlay picked up a copy of the Reborn album on 12″ vinyl, Orion’s debut release. That was where the interest in him started, and between then and now the director has visited almost everyone closely involved in his life to discuss their experience of a man driven by a desire to sing on his own terms. It is excellently put together. It is a story that threatens to be either not very interesting or flawed due to lack of decent source material (the Presley estate provide little footage for these kinds of films and many of the key people in the film were unavailable for interview). Fortunately, neither of these things threaten to creep in and the end product is fascinating.

Oh Ryan.

Oh Ryan.

It goes a long way into intimately portraying a man torn between being forced to hide behind a mask and enjoying the limited success he was achieving. It is balanced and as such avoids over-celebrating Ellis, concentrating on his personality rather than his success. As with most music documentaries, many of the anecdotes bring huge amounts of comedy to the table and Finlay has been careful to interview as many people as were available, no easy task when on such a tight budget.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is a documentary worth watching, and it’s an experience enhanced if you know nothing about Ellis. A full list of screenings can be found on the official website.

David Nicholas Wilkinson and the truth behind the birth of cinema

The First Film is an explorative documentary film that follows writer, producer, director and presenter David Nicholas Wilkinson in his quest to determine whether or not the first film footage ever recorded was done so in Leeds on 14th October 1888. The footage at the centre of the film is titled Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by the Frenchman Louis Le Prince. It lasts only a few seconds but is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in cinematic history.

Wilkinson explores the background of this footage and its claim to being either the first ever recorded film footage or simply the earliest surviving film footage. He also looks into the strange disappearance of Le Prince on 16th September 1890 on a train from Dijon to Paris, a disappearance that meant the argument of Le Prince being the inventor of the moving image cameras had lost its most important voice, paving the way for Thomas Edison to go down in the history books as the inventor of the movie camera. Things get very suspicious when the death of his son Adolphe in an unusual hunting incident in July 1901 lays his argument to rest.

A groundbreaking piece of cinematic history

When I caught up with David Nicholas Wilkinson to discuss the film, he reflected on the underwhelming appearance of the location as it stands today, a discovery that produces one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

“One of the first shots we filmed was of me finding the original location of the scene. I had to laugh. I had no idea what to expect but a cul-de-sac is about as banal a setting as I could imagine.” His presenting style is infectious even when he encounters disappointments like these, such is his passion for the subject matter. He remains upbeat despite such adversity: “I had hoped for something to be left, even if it was a tree.”

A key fact that the film explores is whether or not a photograph in a French morgue is that of Le Prince. It shows only the face of a deceased man who looks remarkably like the groundbreaking filmmaker, but David is not convinced. “I don’t really think it’s him. In 1890 the average height of a man in France was around 5ft 6in. Le Prince was actually 6ft 4in. In the accompanying notes for the photograph, anything unusual or out of the ordinary had been recorded for each person, though it was very scant in general. If it was definitely him it would have been recorded.”

Only one shot that had to be re-filmed, which meant both David and his co-writer Irfan Shan had to try their hand at acting surprised at discovering Le Prince’s grave. “He never wanted to be in it, but he knew most of the answers and stopped me making mistakes.”

The last-minute curveball

As we come to the end of the film, a late revelation throws the argument up in the air again through a discovery by Laurie Schneider. As David explains, “We had to delay. Everyone wanted me to cut it but once I knew what I’d found out about it I knew it was vital to the story.” The fact David’s discoveries are captured on camera means the audience goes on the journey with him, leaving the story open to these kinds of curveballs throughout.

Whilst the film explores the three most plausible explanations for the disappearance of Le Prince, David explains that there are many more doing the rounds. “There are around ten theories about what happened. One theory is that he was a spy for both Britain and USA during a time when there was a threat of a second French Revolution. Another is that he was filming snuff films with Jack The Ripper…” As he tails off there is something in his voice that gives the impression he doesn’t quite believe these avenues of thought.

It is clearly a labour of love and he has produced a compelling argument on what was likely a relatively small budget. One source of frustration for him came from the British Film Institution. “I went for a BFI distribution loan, which would allow me to visit colleges and universities around the UK. I had agreements with thirty out of a planned fifty and saw it as a great way to get the truth around. I was turned down because it was deemed “too educational”. I’m sure their remit is to promote the British film industry. I can’t come up with a tangible reason for it. Maybe they don’t believe me.”

David is the driving force behind the film.

David’s relentless passion for the project is infectious.

The driving force is Wilkinson himself and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in his determined narrative. This determination comes despite concerns about the film’s viability. “It was a big worry because it had been rejected so many times. I’d been advised not to do it, but I knew people would be interested in this story.” It appears he is correct in this thought given the amount of coverage it is now getting in national newspapers. “It’s a forgotten story and an important part of our history as a film-making nation. People will now know the Le Prince name. In fact, the widespread coverage means the story is getting out even to people who haven’t seen the film.”

“The film has been thirty-three years in the making”, he states, referring to that point being the first time he pitched it to the BBC in 1982. “I’ve laid it to rest now though. Now that it’s out there I can move on. It’s often the case with filmmakers that the one project we’re really passionate about is the one that never gets made. People go decades without making a project and I often believe that they don’t really want it to get made.” It’s lucky that David’s one project was this one and we’re lucky to be able to hear the story, albeit 125 years late. The story deserved to be told and now it deserves to be seen.

The First Film is on limited release now, with the following cinemas offering screenings over the next month.

July

03.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
04.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
08.07.15 – Gate Cinema London
11.07.15 – Galway Film Fleadh – Ireland
14.07.15 – Triskel Arts Centre, Cork – Ireland
15.07.15 – IFI, Dublin – Ireland
16.07.15 – Queens Film Theatre, Belfast
20.07.15 – Greenwich Picturehouse London
23.07.15 – Ritzy, Brixton, London
26.07.15 – Cambridge Picturehouse
28.07.15 – Norden Farm, Maidenhead
30.07.15 – Kingston Arts Centre

August

01.08.15 – Bath Picturehouse
03.08.15 – Home Manchester
05.08.15 – Vue Leeds
06.08.15 – City Screen, York
07.08.15 – Sheffield Showroom
09:08:15 – Hebden Bridge Picture House
13.08.15 – Electric Palace, Hastings
18:08:15 – Picture House, Uckfield

Wilko Johnson live at the William’s Green Stage, Glastonbury Festival, 25th June 2015

Live Performance

Setlist:

1. All Right
2. Barbed Wire Blues
3. Unknown
4. Unknown
5. Unknown [1]

The second day at Glastonbury is when the fun starts to get interesting. A few familiar acts start to pop up and by and large nobody has a 50 minute pilgrimage with a 40kg weight strapped to their back to kick-off the day.

Our first act of the day was Wilko Johnson on the William’s Green Stage. It was a short set (about 30 minutes) followed by a long interview (about 30 minutes) followed by an exclusive screening of the new Julien Temple documentary The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson.

I’m largely unfamiliar with Wilko’s music but the set gave me a flavour of what he’s about. I’ve seen many bad versions of this band in pubs across the country on a Friday night, playing vintage 12-bar-blues to an older audience. We drink ale, they play music. It’s a great night even though the band aren’t always great. Well, imagine how much fun you’d have if the band were actually really top quality. This is what you get from Wilko Johnson.

The first thing you notice when watching Wilko Johnson is that he has thunderously focused eyes. It brings an intensity to the music I can’t quite describe. Whilst doing that, he’s also carrying his Fender Telecaster like it’s a machine gun. It’s wholly intimidating. [2]

Those unfamiliar with his music might be more familiar with his role in Game of Thrones as the executioner Ilyn Payne. He wasn’t in many episodes but when you see his eyes on stage it instantly brings it back. You can see why he was cast.

So there you have it. Instead of reviewing his gig all I’ve done is talk about his eyes, the machine gun guitar technique and Game of Thrones. Oh how the true Wilko fans will be fuming. It was a brilliant gig though, it has to be said. I’m hoping I get to see the band in a full set soon.

Wilko and Julien speak in the pre-screening Q&A

Wilko and Julien speak in the pre-screening Q&A

Film + Q&A

Prior to the film was an extended interview with Wilko, Julien Temple and Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian. Wilko stated early on that he isn’t a fan of seeing footage of himself, so seeing a film based entirely on himself would be hard work to watch.

The film is ostensibly about Wilko’s battle with cancer as he was given ten months to live. It covers this period, then goes on to what he describes as “extra time” and then his miraculous recovery following some radical treatment.

He talked in the Q&A about the difference between being told you have cancer and being told you have the all-clear. “You go and see the doctor and he says you have cancer and, like that, the universe changes. You go back after a year and they give you the all-clear and it’s not instant at all. I had an 11-hour operation to remove a 3.5kg tumour from my stomach… and then weeks of recuperation with post-operative-infections. So I had time to feel sorry for myself.” Of course, when he announces he’s all-clear, the crowd erupts in joy and applause.

Speaking on the album he did with The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Wilko was in a reflective mood: “I think of all the things I did that year. I was in a bubble. Doing the record with Roger was just one of the many strange things that happened to me that year. It was the first thing I’d done in “extra time”. I was walking around outside the studio thinking ‘this is going to be the last thing I do, this is freaky, I’m going to die soon'”.

He also spoke humorously about the fact he never got his coffee from a backstage assistant, and reflected that he was looking forward to the end but now has to keep gigging because people keep coming back for more.

This mixture of lighthearted humour with honest reflection is indicative of the tone of the film, which is far more than just a rockumentary on a band’s final tour. It is in fact a hugely emotional journey and a fascinating insight into people battling with terminal illness. It’s well worth watching when it appears later this year.

[1] Can anyone help me with these?
[2] After you’ve finished absorbing the awesomeness of Wilko himself, you may find yourself drawn to the equally bizarre bassist Norman Watt-Roy. He’s unique.
[Note] Massive thanks to Scott Wetherill for the video. Hope you’re okay with me using it! Let me know if not.

No Manifesto (Elizabeth Marcus, 2015)

In 1991, Welsh band Manic Street Preachers arrived on the British music scene proclaiming their ambition to make one album, sell 16 million copies and then split up. 18 years, 9 studio albums, one missing member and many controversies later, they’re one of the UK’s most highly acclaimed bands. Narrated by their fans and featuring exclusive footage of recording sessions, live performances and interviews with the band combined with archival materials, No Manifesto takes an in-depth look at the Manics’ history and creative process and gives glimpses of the quirky and unique personalities that make up the band, as well as exploring the deep relationship between the band and their audience.

Director – Elizabeth Marcus
Producer – Kurt Engfehr

Inevitably when I sit down to watch a music documentary it’s going to be for a band that I already know and love. They can be a mixed affair. I recently reviewed the Elvis Costello documentary Mystery Dance and found it fascinating, full of information I wasn’t aware of. On the flip side, the Supergrass documentary Glange Fever is probably best avoided unless you’re a truly avid fan (which I am, so I loved it, but I can see a lot of people not doing so). So when I bought a ticket to a special screening of No Manifesto at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, I fully expected a crowd full of die-hard fans eager to get a glimpse of the band behind the scenes. That panned out as expected and I think the crowd go what they wanted too. Sort of.

After so long on the music scene, the Manics have built up a close relationship with their fans. Riding the wave of Britpop despite not deliberately trying to be part of the movement (did anyone?), they stuck to their guns and kept releasing great album after great album. That hasn’t really been reflected in their album sales though, nor in the critics’ reaction to their output. As the film points out on several occasions they peaked commercially with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours in 1998, though if you ask any avid Manics fans they were at their best in their first three albums before the mysterious disappearance of Richey Edwards.

The concept that their best work was in their early days is not something I totally agree with. I also class myself as an avid Manics fan but didn’t join the party until the Everything Must Go album, and I still hold that this is their greatest achievement as a band. Clearly this isn’t a common thought but it always baffles me as the album was so commercially and critically popular. Maybe I’m missing something.

Indeed, you only have to listen to their last couple of albums to realise that they truly haven’t slowed down at all, with a host of big hit singles saturating the radio each time. Show Me The Wonder, It’s Not War (Just The End Of Love) and Anthem For A Lost Cause, rather than standout tracks, are all just a fair representation of the quality waiting to be found within the album should you want to find it. They pretty much sell out their tours every time and their live shows are still full of energy. They truly are something special.

So what does the film bring to the table that we don’t already know? Director Elizabeth Marcus and producer Kurt Engfehr are both from North America, a place where the Manics never quite made it (for several unfortunate reasons). As the film played out and the message was consistently negative about the Manics’ achievements post-millennium, I found myself agreeing less and less with what they were saying. However, I came to realise that it was a truthful depiction of how the Manics are perceived, just in North America.

The film, for which over 100 hours of footage was filmed (“you never know what footage you need”), covers the band from 2005 in the run up to the release of the commercially viable Send Away The Tigers through to the 2009 release of Journal For Plague Lovers, the album that utilised the last lyrics written by Richey. This subject matter understandably gets a decent amount of coverage as it was such a pressing matter in the build up to their 2009 release, though it wasn’t lingered on too much.

Marcus, discussing the film after the screening, said “most press, books and TV treated the band like Richey is the only interesting thing about them. I felt they deserved more credit, both as a band and as people. They had to deal with personal loss and they had to do it in the public eye. They dealt with it with such grace and patience and I wanted them to have more attention.” I agree with this to some extent, but I don’t personally believe that they are solely associated with Richey’s disappearance. Certainly not in the UK. Most bands go through a trajectory of popularity where they have a peak of popularity somewhere between their first and third album, then continually decline from there and end up either breaking up or continuing with a reduced but hardcore fanbase. Clearly the Manics are in the latter category, but have a huge fanbase that support them with every album they release. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing abnormal about it. It doesn’t mean they’re really unpopular, just that they aren’t seen in the same light as when they broke through almost 25 years ago.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to take so long to produce the final product, but evidently the delay of five years from completing filming to releasing the final product is going to have an adverse effect on the success of the film. As an independently produced film it was always bound to take longer to get over the line. Actually, they had to take several breaks to earn the money to get to the next stage of the project. I hope this delay won’t mean it is a financial failure as the director and producer deserve more.

For me, the film didn’t have any surprise revelations and as such is telling a story that the target audience already knows, albeit from an unusual point of view. It is a good document of a great band, and will probably be looked back on as an important piece of work for people who become fans through word of mouth some years down the line. For now it’s simply a nice-to-have film for the already converted.

No Manifesto is available to buy now on Blu-Ray and DVD.