Blur – 'New World Towers' film review
Less than a year ago, the prospect of another Blur album seemed remote: rumours of new material were summarily dismissed, and the reunion shows on which the band had been trading since 2009 had long since dried up. So when they announced in February the imminent arrival of The Magic Whip, their first album as a quartet for 16 years, there was understandable intrigue, bolstered further by the unusual story of the album’s conception: following last-minute gig cancellations in the Far East, Blur spent the unanticipated five days of downtime jamming together in a sweaty, no-frills studio near where they were staying in Hong Kong. A year later, Graham Coxon resurrected the recordings and unravelled them into twelve instrumentals for which Damon Albarn then wrote lyrics.
New World Towers, Blur’s third documentary film, traces the circumstances that led to that unravelling, the assembly of the record itself and the ensuing world tour. It’s initially played for laughs: candid-camera footage from inside the studio shows Coxon playing Oasis’ Whatever along with comedy-Gallagher accent, and interview clips with Albarn and Alex James are amusingly juxtaposed to make them contradict one another and appear like endearingly bickering lovers. Dave Rowntree, almost parodically, is interviewed from the back of a black cab.
It’s largely charming stuff and, interspersed with genuinely affecting live footage from the band’s shows this summer in Hyde Park and Hong Kong, it sets the tone for a likeably chummy puff-piece designed to give The Magic Whip a classic-album status that its content alone doesn’t quite demand.
You sense, though, that the intended message of New World Towers is somewhat loftier: after the opening joshing - here’s James in some daft shorts, the country-house tosser!, etc - the film develops an earnest narrative around how Coxon’s driving role in The Magic Whip’s creation was penitence for him walking out on the band in 2002, while the others are painted as simply grateful, for differing reasons, for the intervention of their prodigal guitarist. But although this redemption story is engaging and authoritatively told, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that this is a deferential, 90-minute film in thrall to a largely average album - arguably Blur’s least cohesive - whose most interesting feature is its unconventional, topsy-turvy construction. Sure, the whittling of relatively simple songs from slabs of jammed-around noise by a band as traditionally precise as Blur is an interesting process to observe, but it also drives home how regrettably underpowered some of those tracks became.
Perhaps fittingly, the documentary itself feels similarly reverse-engineered too - grainy hand-held studio footage never intended for broadcast (shot originally by James as a personal memento) is sculpted into quirky home-video vignettes, and interviews are assembled to bolster a point retrospectively. The end result is admirably devotional - and there’s plenty here to humour ardent fans - but unfortunately The Magic Whip’s creation myth isn’t enough to sustain the film alone.
Thank heavens, then for New World Towers’ saving grace, in the form of its extraordinary live footage: impossibly intimate on-stage shots of the band interacting with one another in close-up super slow-mo, all single beads of sweat and piercing stares, offer the kind of insight into their relationships that the rest of the documentary rarely delivers. One shot of Albarn intensely eyeballing Rowntree over the drum riser as the cymbals clatter around the pair is particularly engrossing, and the grand, sweeping shots of Hyde Park at sunset, beautifully photographed and seamlessly montaged, give a far better impression of what it must be like to be in Blur in your late 40s than cosy band soundbites.
Pitted against the somewhat fluffy storytelling, the live material gives the film its pace, and makes for an overall effect almost of Blur in microcosm: for every somewhat grating Albarnism, or shot of James eating cheese (both knowingly delivered as if contractually obliged), there’s magnificent footage of the band smashing out Trimm Trabb or losing themselves in the elegiac grandeur of This Is A Low in front of 65,000 fans. As New World Towers’ credits roll, just like at the end of a Blur gig, you’re left realising that they’re one of the greatest-ever British bands, while simultaneously wishing they weren’t quite so keen to prove it.