Monday, 3 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival (1) - Eddie Cockrell reviews A DOG CALLED MONEY (Seamus Murphy, UK/Ireland, 2019)

It isn’t necessary to be a fan of British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey to appreciate the intersection of artistic and political urgencies at the heart of the Irish-British production A Dog Called Money (which premiered in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlinale), the new feature-length documentary on the making of her ninth full-length album, 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. But it sure helps if you are. 

Harvey, working once again with music video and film director Seamus Murphy (below), is the serenely opinionated yet necessarily elusive focus of the piece, as she travels between 2011 and 2014 to Kabul, Kosovo and Washington, D.C.’s perpetually struggling south-east Ward 7 to do… what, exactly? 

Closely followed by Murphy’s capable camera, with notebook in tow and a musing voice-over added in post, she inspects the terrain and interacts with the locals. These scenes are intercut with Harvey at work on the album itself, which was recorded in a purpose-built studio underneath a building in central London that featured scrim-covered windows that allowed the public to view the process without being seen by the musicians. Alternately called an “installation” and “an experiment” in the early going, the situation as well as the editing strategy allows Murphy to show Harvey making music from her experiences with an immediacy that somehow calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s treatment of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” sessions in his 1969 documentary of the same name (alternately called One Plus One). 

As with the Godard, A Dog Called Money is about the creative process itself, not an explanation of the creative process. Is this cinematic? Again, it may well be her fans who will respond most warmly to the approach. As a word of explanation, the film takes its title not from a track on the album itself, but the A-side of an eponymous seven-inch single inspired by Harvey’s experience in Washington and sold in a limited US$20 pressing exclusively at her 2017 North American shows (as one poster to the music database website Discogs put it, “I think proceeds were going to charity, but it should be easy to get later on [as] it’s price for your average concert-goer”). The song may be heard on YouTube. 

Harvey’s enduring popularity as an alternative artist and the number seven showing of The Hope Six Demolition Project on the Australian charts suggests a local audience for the film’s festival screenings; with this in mind, perhaps the film’s most representative shot is its very first, of a dirt-smudged child, hands and face pressed to the glass of, presumably, a car window, cryptic smile and wide eyes indicating an abiding curiosity to know, to know what’s going on. 

Screens at Wed 5 June 8:30pm Dendy Newtown 
Mon 10 June 4pm Dendy Newtown 
Fri 14 June 8:30pm Event Cinemas George St 4

Australian Distributor Madman Entertainment

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