Sunday, 31 August 2008

In a room with a window in the corner I found truth

SHADOWPLAYERS: Factory Records & Manchester Post-Punk 1978-81

"Shadowplayers" is a two-hour documentary, put together by James Nice and released on DVD through his LTM label. It covers the early years of Factory Records, told through reminiscences from label founder Anthony H. Wilson, designer Peter Saville and the label's more prominent artists such as Peter Hook and Vini Reilly, as well as many other Factory acts including Section 25, Crispy Ambulance and A Certain Ratio. Howard Devoto and Killing Joke also get a look-in, despite having no direct connection with the label.

The film is separated into a series of chapters covering aspects such as the founding of the label and Peter Saville's iconic sleeve designs, as well as key historical events including the death of Ian Curtis and the notorious Joy Division gig in Bury that sparked a riot.

"Shadowplayers" provides a fascinating insight into what was a very exciting period in the UK's musical history, and through its first-person recollections manages both to reinforce and dispel many of the popular myths surrounding the label. Perhaps the most interesting parts are the stories about Martin Hannett from those who worked with him. The popular perception of Hannett is of a great producer who was a real pain to work with, and that is certainly backed up by those whose records he produced. Nobody here pays any heed to the old adage of not speaking ill of the dead; at one point Hooky describes Hannett as childish, but ACR go one step further and even criticse his work. Guitarist/trumpeter Martin Moscrop claims that Hannett's very precise production techniques removed all the feeling from their debut album.

The most amusing scene centres around the mutual bitching between Tony Wilson and Section 25's Cassidy brothers. Wilson states that the brothers would win the award for "whingers of the year"; they then prove his point by complaining about the length of time it took to create the artwork for their first release and having to put the records in the sleeves themselves.

If I have one criticism of this documentary, it's the lack of variety in the way it's presented. For a film about a record label, there is surprisingly little in the way of musical content. It consists almost entirely of "talking head" shots of the contributors sitting at home, in recording studios or, in the case of Vini Reilly, outside slumped against a wall. On a couple of occasions, record sleeves are shown; for example, Section 25 hold up the infamously expensive cover of their debut album. But there are no clips of any of the bands playing. This is most apparent when ACR are talking about their image and the clothes they wore onstage in 1980. This would have been best illustrated by a live clip, or at the very least an old photo of the band.

The film is clearly aimed at those who have a prior knowledge of Factory's music and want to learn more about what went on behind the scenes; on that level it is a great success. For anyone wanting an introudction to some of the bands, a better place to start would be the BBC's documentary "Factory: From Joy Division to Happy Mondays", which has been shown several times and I believe is being repeated on BBC4 later this week. If the BBC were to release this on DVD then it would be the perfect complement to James Nice's film.

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