Monday, August 24, 2015

Duff Review: Julien Temple's Madness Film "The Liberty of Norton Folgate"

(Review by Steve Shafer)

As part of its "Sound and Vision 2015" series, the Film Society of Lincoln Center screened two ska-themed films on August 3, 2015: Brad Klein's "Legends of Ska: Cool and Copasetic" and Julien Temple's Madness concert film "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" (Temple, of course, is responsible for "The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle," "The Filth and the Fury," and "The Future is Unwritten," amongst other music-related movies.) While I wasn't able to to attend "Legends of Ska," I was lucky to have caught the amazing "The Liberty of Norton Folgate," which was shown later that evening. When I arrived in the theatre lobby, there was still a big crowd talking and taking pictures with reggae percussionist Larry McDonald (Carlos Malcolm, Toots and the Maytals, The Skatalites, Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Tosh) and reggae producer Clive Chin (Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown, Junior Byles)--and director Brad Klein was chatting up fans while signing "Legends of Ska" posters (after "Legends of Ska," there had been a Q and A session with Klein and McDonald).

Word of mouth, largely via a grassroots Facebook campaign of sorts amongst NYC ska fans, had effectively promoted "Legends of Ska" (it's how I learned of the screening). But there had been practically no publicity for either film in the local mainstream press--I accidentally discovered "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" screening on the FSLC website while looking for "Legends of Ska." (A quick Google search resulted in practically no listings in the local press for these films or this series.) There are probably thousands of Madness fans in the NYC metro area--but it appears that there was no significant effort to reach out to them. There were only six or seven people--including my son and me--in the theatre for "The Liberty of Norton Folgate." And that was a real shame; this excellent movie deserved a much bigger audience for what must have been its New York City (or even American?) premiere.

"The Liberty of Norton Folgate" captures Madness performing its phenomenal concept album of the same name at The Hackney Empire in 2009. It's kind of heady stuff, but it's vital to have an understanding of the album before delving in to the film. Here's what I wrote about the theme of The Liberty of Norton Folgate a few years ago for Ready Steady Ska:
"Just as New York City’s incredible diversity and social/political liberal traditions came about due to the fact that she was the point of entry for successive waves of immigrants for decades, the liberty that people enjoyed for centuries in Norton Folgate is due to the history of its unique geographical place. 
The Liberty of Norton Folgate is, as Suggs writes in his extensive liner notes for the album, "a travel song in one place…about one small area of London—gets the x-ray camera out and shoots down through the crust, past the bullets and bones, the clay pipes and stones to try and get to the soul of the place." It focuses on an area that sprang up outside the old London city walls (originally a garbage dump) in the 1100s that first served as a point of entry for immigrants and outsiders. It eventually developed into an unofficial town with its own laws and conventions apart from those of London proper. By the 1700s, London had encompassed Norton Folgate, but it remained independent of London (hence, "the liberty of"), run by a group of trustees, and was home to generations of immigrants, as well as a "refuge for actors, writers, thinkers, louts, lowlifes and libertines, outsiders and troublemakers all," in Suggs’ words. 
Norton Folgate was a place that fostered freedom, diversity, and tolerance despite—or more likely because—its reputation as a place of ill repute. It was society’s receptacle for outsiders. And at that point proper London society couldn’t be bothered with enforcing its conventions on Norton Folgate’s citizens. This is what fascinated Suggs and the band—that "certain areas seem to retain their distinct personality through centuries of time and the passing of generations’ different peoples.""
During the concert, to help provide both a taste of, and connection to, Norton Folgate's past (The Hackney Empire, a music hall theatre built in 1901, is located near Norton Folgate, which is now part of the Stepney neighborhood of London)--and to emphasize how a place's history influences the present day residents of the area--actors in 19th century garb were present throughout the theatre as Victorian-era music hall performers (the British equivalent of American vaudeville or burlesque performers). At first, they're heckling the band and audience between songs, but gradually they're integrated into Madness' performance, so that by the time Madness plays the song "The Liberty of Norton Folgate," one of them is playing the bass drum, many of them are dancing on stage with the band, etc. (It's important to note that throughout their career, Madness have incorporated elements of the British working class music hall into their songs and performances--and for this concert they're overtly displaying their connection to that tradition.)

In addition, Suggs and Carl (AKA Chas Smash, born Cathal Smyth) introduce each song through these strange, amusing, sometimes cryptic, and highly theatrical spoken-word bits (written by Smyth) that evoke the London of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, then Karl Marx and Jack the Ripper, and were shot in various spots in Norton Folgate at night (though this Yank would have preferred a more straight-up tour of the neighborhood and the significance of its history; I felt like I missed many of the things they alluded to). Indeed, there is a heavy emphasis on connecting everything to the neighborhood--some of the concert footage was projected on various structures near The Hackney Empire and footage of that was edited into the final film; it's as if they're suggesting that the music from this album, influenced by/celebrating the history of the neighborhood, is as a part of/integral to the neighborhood as the buildings themselves, the notes and lyrics housed within the grout that keeps the bricks from crumbling (and allowing present day residents to live/work in edifices built by and occupied by those from the past).

"The Liberty of Norton Folgate" opens with a wide shot of the inside of the theatre, just prior to the "Overture" that opens the album and concert. A woman sings the 1892 George and Thomas Le Brunn music hall tune "Oh, Mr. Porter" ("Oh! Mr. Porter, what shall I do?/I want to go to Birmingham/And they're taking me on to Crewe/Take me back to London, as quickly as you can/Oh! Mr. Porter, what a silly girl I am!") and as the camera pans up to the starry night-like ceiling, another declares (from one of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes, brilliantly incorporated into The Pretenders' "Message of Love," where I first encountered it decades ago), "All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" (this elicits the rude rebuke from another actor: "Speak for yourself, you stupid pissant!"). Chas Smash then appears to introduce the evening's proceedings, which he warns that some may find, "a flatulent piece of frivolity, while other may consider it with awe and reverence" and apologizes if "any pipette or syringe becomes lodged in your thigh." (He also asks the ladies not to spit.) Finally, he announces, "I give you, for the first time, in this time [pointing to the closed curtain obscuring Madness behind him and, presumably, the past], in your time [pointing to the audience, very much in the present--well, 2009], "The Liberty of Norton Folgate!" Strings, you fuckers!" And the "Overture for Norton Folgate" begins.

As a small orchestra plays the "Overture," we see a wood cut print of old London, and then cut away to a segment filmed one misty night where Suggs and Carl tell us, "You can walk the entire length of Norton Folgate in a matter of minutes. And beneath your feet, through the soil, lies old London. Bobbins and florins, boot soles, and bones, fragments of all kinds of crap. Bits of old bombs sent from Berlin. The past is very close in Norton Folgate--and always has been." After another spoken-word performance about the various denizens of the area, Chas and Suggs repeat their refrain, "We Are London"--which, of course, is the first song off the album. The curtain rises and Madness commence The Liberty of Norton Folgate, which time-travels, H.G. Welles "Time Machine"-style, between songs about the past and present lives of those in Norton Folgate.

Unlike other concert films, which tend to focus almost exclusively on the action on stage, Temple does his utmost to document as much of the night as possible. In addition to capturing Madness performing up close and personal, his cameras prowl through the audience in all sections of the theatre (as the fans revel in Madness' show--god, it looked like they were having an incredible time--and the theatrical performers do their thing), as well as outside the hall, all over Norton Folgate. At first, Temple's manic pace of jump cuts between all of the different footage is distracting and even a bit bewildering (What am I looking at now? I wasn't finished taking in that last bit...). But as the film unfolds, it grows on you--and you begin to appreciate Temple's ADHD approach to the concert and understand his desire to capture and cram in as much of the experience of the concert as possible, from all vantage points and points of view. There's no polite fourth wall here--and the border between past and present (Madness as music hall performers from Norton Folgate's yesteryear; the audience in the here and now) is blurred as much as our imaginations will permit.

Much to my embarrassment, I have to admit that I've never been able to see Madness live, but it seems to me that this film has to be a pretty good substitute for the real thing (I came out of the film exhilarated by the experience, as if I had seen them in person). Several of the songs that I hadn't paid much attention to on the album The Liberty of Norton Folgate ("NW5" and "Clerkenwell Polka," in particular) really connected with me in their live versions (as is so often the case) and it was fantastic to see/hear my favorite tracks from the album, too ("We Are London," "Dust Devil," "Idiot Child," "Forever Young," and "On the Town"--Rhoda Dakar makes a wonderful appearance on stage in the film to sing with Suggs for this song, as she does on the album).

As a concern film, "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" succeeds on every level. Madness are in top form, the songs are some of their best ever (this album is their masterpiece), and there's an immediacy about it all that coveys how fun and extraordinarily special it must have been to be in The Empire Hackney that evening. Yet, "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" is also an ambitious and profound piece of performance art--an examination of obscure footnote in London's history set to music containing a desperately relevant message that humanity still hasn't truly learned: real freedom can only be achieved through living in diverse communities and by fully embracing multiculturalism (see how the history and people of Norton Folgate made this possible...). It may mean living in the gutter (on an old garbage heap) on fringes of polite society, but you'll be afforded the liberty to look for, and perhaps find, your life's guiding star (and happiness).

+ + + +

Below, you'll find an excerpt of the film from when it was broadcast on the BBC that best illustrates all that Madness are trying to achieve with this album and film, It's the magnificent, 10-minute "The Liberty of Norton Folgate"--hundreds of years of Norton Folgate's history recounted in what must be Madness' finest song.

"The Liberty of Norton Folgate" (McPherson/Barson/Smyth)

"This is the story of the Liberty Of Norton Folgate

A little bit of this, would you like a bit of that?

But in weather like this, you should wear a coat, a nice warm hat
A needle and thread the hand stitches of time
Battling Levinsky versus Jackie Burk
Bobbing and weaving, an invisible line

So step for step and both light on our feet
We’ll travel many along dim silent street

Would you like a bit of this, or a little bit of that? (Misses)
A little bit of what you like does you no harm, you know that
The perpetual steady echo of the passing beat
A continual dark river of people
In its transience and in its permanence
But, when the streetlamp fills the gutter with gold
So many priceless items bought and sold

So step for step and both light on our feet
We’ll travel many along dim silent street (together)

Once 'round Arnold Circus, and up through Petticoat Lane
Past the well of shadows, and once back round again
Arm in arm, with an abstracted air
To where the people stare
Out of the upstairs windows
Because we are living like kings
And these days will last forever

'Cos sailors from Africa, China and the archipelago of Malay
Jump ship ragged and penniless into Shadwells Tiger Bay
The Welsh and Irish wagtails, mothers of midnight
The music hall carousel enspilling out into bonfire light
Sending half crazed shadows, giants dancing up the brick wall
Of Mr Trumans beer factory, waving, bottles ten feet tall

Whether one calls it Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets
Or Banglatown
We’re all dancing in the moonlight, we’re all
On borrowed ground

Oh, I’m just walking down to, I’m just floating down through
Won’t you come with me, to the Liberty of Norton Folgate
But wait!
What’s that?
Dan Leno
And the Limehouse golem

Purposefully walking nowhere, oh I’m happy just floating about
(Have a banana)
On a Sunday afternoon, the stallholders all call and shout
To no one in particular
Avoiding people you know, you’re just basking in you’re own company
The technicolour world’s going by, but you’re the lead in your own movie

'Cos in the Liberty of Norton Folgate
Walking wild and free, in your second hand coat
Happy just to float
In this little taste of liberty
A part of everything you see

They’re coming left and right
Trying to flog you stuff you don’t need or want
And a smiling chap takes your hand
And drags you in his uncle's restaurant
(ee-yar, ee-yar, ee-yar)

There’s a Chinese man trying hard to flog you moody DVDs
You know? You’ve seen the film, it’s black and white, it’s got no sound
And a man’s head pops up and down
Right across your widescreen TV
(Only a fiver)
(‘Ow much?)
(Alright, two for eight quid)
(Ee-yar, ee-yar, look, I’m givin’ it away)
(Givin’ it away!)

'Cos in the Liberty of Norton Folgate
Walking wild and free, in your second hand coat,
Happy just to float
In this little piece of liberty
You’re a part of everything you see

There’s the sturdy old fellows, pickpockets, dandy’s, extortioners
And night wanderers, the feeble, the ghastly, upon whom death
Had placed a very sure hand
Some in shreds and patches
Reeling inarticulate full of noisy and inordinate vivacity
That jars discordantly upon the ear
And gives an aching sensation to both pair of eyeballs
(Noisy and inordinate vivacity)

In the beginning was a fear of the immigrant
In the beginning was a fear of the immigrant
He’s made his way down to the dark riverside

In the beginning was a fear of the immigrant
In the beginning was a fear of the immigrant
He’s made his home there down by the dark riverside

He made his home there down by the riverside
They made their homes there down by the riverside
The city sprang up from the dark river Thames

They made their home there down by the riverside
They made their homes there down by the riverside
The city sprang up from the dark mud of the Thames
I’ll say it again

‘Cos in the Liberty of Norton Folgate
Walking wild and free
And in your second hand coat
Happy just to float
In this little taste of liberty
Cos you’re a part of everything you see
Yes, you’re a part of everything you see

With a little bit of this
And a little bit of that
A little bit of what you like does you no harm
And you know that"

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