Paul Kelly: On the Hot Dog Streets with Lawrence of Belgravia
Posted on May 15, 2012 by Andy Markowitz (Musicfilmweb)

In the 1980s, Lawrence - just Lawrence - fronted the influential British indie rock/dream pop band Felt, which many people thought should be huge but wasn't. In the '90s he formed glam revivalists Denim, which many people thought should be huge but wasn't. Now he leads the tunefully eccentric Go-Kart Mozart, which Lawrence thinks should be huge but isn't. UK music mag Uncut once called him, perhaps uncharitably but not inaccurately, "one of the stars that fame forgot."

But Lawrence hasn't forgotten fame. As detailed in the music documentary Lawrence of Belgravia, he is preoccupied with stardom, and his lack of it. "I'm completely obsessed with being famous," he says early in the film, morosely riding the London Underground. "The day I don't have to go on the tube anymore is the day I fucking celebrate."

He's also spent extended periods homeless and battled mental illness and a drug habit. But Paul Kelly's film - while artfully communicating those traumas and hinting at their effect - is less interested in biographical detail or personal dysfunction than in painting an unblinking but slyly sympathetic portrait of an artist out of time, doggedly pursuing his own, very personal creative reality and trying to figure out why it hasn't made him rich yet.

Kelly - a musician, designer, and filmmaker best known for Finisterre, the day-in-the-life-of-London visual essay he made with Kieran Evans and the band Saint Etienne - spent much of the last eight years tracking Lawrence as he labored to finish the latest Go-Kart Mozart release, On the Hot Dog Streets (the album finally comes out next month). The movie premiered last fall at the BFI London Film Festival and is now on a tour of UK cinemas, during a day off from which Kelly talked to us by phone from his London digs.

MFW: Why did you decide to make a movie about Lawrence?

Paul Kelly: In 2002 I was working on [Finisterre] with Saint Etienne - this was a film about London, celebrating London - and we interviewed various friends or people associated with the band. We'd all known Lawrence for a long time, and as he'd moved from Birmingham to London, we thought it would be good to interview him about his experience in coming to London. When I was filming the interview, I just thought he was such an engaging and funny character. He's screaming to have a documentary made about him. He was really into the idea, so we sat down and talked about how this movie might work out, how we would do it. We were quite clear from the start that we didn't want to make a standard rock documentary, about the history of Felt and Denim and Go-Kart Mozart.

Didn't you feel like that background was part of what made him a subject in search of a documentary?

Well, obviously, he's got an incredible history. He's an enigma to most people. But what I found fascinating was that he's like a fish out of water. He should have been up on stage playing gigs and selling millions of records. I don't think his output in music has tailed off in any way. And I thought it's a travesty that this guy was walking the streets virtually penniless. It wasn't about the past, it was about the future. The thing about Lawrence is, he's not looking back. He's well aware of his legacy, but he's not the kind of person that is looking back to the great old days. I wanted to capture that. It's all about where he's going. I would love to have been around making a documentary about Felt in 1982, that'd be brilliant. But there's a
danger of missing what's happening right in front of your eyes.

Why did it turn into such a long-term commitment?

Lawrence has a lot of financial and social problems. He's homeless a lot of the time. He doesn't have a phone, and he'll go to ground. He'll disappear for months on end, and I literally couldn't track him down. I didn't know if he was alive or dead half the time. As a filmmaker I want to plan it out, you know, have some sort of strategy, but every time I tried to think of a narrative arc that we could follow, he would disappear and the moment was lost. I would have people calling me - "Do you know where Lawrence is?" I'd literally go searching the streets for him. It wasn't until he would get in touch with me - he'd call me up out of the blue, and we'd be talking and pick up the filming again. It was a very stop-start kind of arrangement. I must have personally thought the film wasn't gonna happen about five times. There was nothing other than me wanting to get the film done that drove it.
There was one guy at the BFI [British Film Institute] called Michael Hayden who was a Felt fan, and he'd heard about the film. And every July, booking in the films for the London Film Festival, he'd always give me a call and say, "How's the Lawrence film coming along?" I'd say, "Yeah, I'll try and get it done," but he always had a deadline, and I could never hit that deadline. In 2011 he called again, it was about the fifth year he'd called me: "Any chance there might be a film ready?" And I just thought OK, I'm not gonna go into this another year, it's embarrassing. I decided, I'm just gonna shut down [other projects] and finish this film. All I had was loads of fragmented sequences. I was cutting sequences as I went along, but they didn't make any sense, really. I had to construct a narrative out of that. It spread across eight years of footage. So I just went through all the interviews and I pulled out things that I thought represented his character.

Tell me a little about those choices. There are some very dramatic things that happened in Lawrence's life, and those things aren't dwelt on a great deal in the narrative. They're sort of hinted at or shown and moved on from.

Those things are obviously a big part of his life, but he's not lying in a corner jacking up. How can I put this? His homelessness, it's a complicated thing. He wasn't just thrown out and then went to a hospital and then got a flat. Sometimes he was homeless, sometimes he was staying on people's sofas, he stayed on my sofa - his situation was changing all the time, and I couldn't really follow it because I would lose touch with him for long periods. And I thought of the danger of that becoming the hole that swallowed the film. I didn't want to make a film about a homeless drug addict, I wanted to make a film about an artist. I wasn't trying to avoid those subjects, but it was so complex that it would have taken up the whole narrative of the film. I didn't feel that it was the main story here.
With his drugs - he's not your conventional drug addict. I've known drug addicts and they'll steal you blind. Not because they're horrible people. It just drives them to crazy things. But Lawrence is able to compartmentalize his life. He's able to put his art, and even his possessions, and keep them in some kind of box, and they keep going, whereas his physical health and his finances just fall away really badly. I've never seen anyone else do it. He doesn't live in squalor. He's very tidy, he's very organized with regard to things that are important to him, like his art and his music, but the drugs are kind of there, in the background. That's what I tried to put in the film: they are compartmentalized, so I compartmentalized those things. And that film's been made before - the guy that could've been a great success but fell into drugs, fell out of money. I didn't think that was what I saw in Lawrence. Some people take him as being a very unpleasant character, and I disagree. I think he's an incredibly charming person.

People view him that way watching the film?

Yeah. I think it's funny because people can take that film in different ways. In the reviews some people found it quite a depressing film, and saw him as a delusional character. And you can see that. You can say he's delusional. But I think on one level he's a very optimistic character. He's always looking forward, he retains incredible optimism and hope, and that's something I really like. I think he's just a pure artist.
In the modern world, success is basically judged on financial success and not necessarily on artistic merit. Retrospectively people judge things on true merit - it's easy to do that after someone's died, say he was a great artist and misunderstood and stuff like that. But he's here now, and it's easy to understand him. He's right when he says at the end, all I try to do is [write] great pop tunes that you can hum along to, why isn't it catching on? [Laughs] Another great thing he says in the film - and people laugh at him - he talks about Lou Reed reforming the Velvet Underground, and he says, "I wouldn't do that, I'm stronger than that." It's funny, but it's true. I know for a fact he'll never reform Felt, even if somebody dangled a million pounds.

Why do you think that is? He wants so much not just to be famous, but to not have to ride the tube anymore. And if he would do some Felt songs or reform the band, he could at least not have to ride the tube for a year or so.

I suppose it comes back to the fact that the art comes first. Reforming Felt would not be a forward move. It would be a backward move, and it's not for art, it's purely for commerce. Obviously it would achieve one goal, but at the expense of his art, and he would see himself as a failure if he did that. He will not compromise.

Finisterre, and most of your work in general, has been about places. In that film, there's a main character and it's London. What kind of adjustment was it for you as a filmmaker to do a character study and to focus on a person?

I try to get some humor and emotional engagement in my films anyway. It makes it a lot easier if you've got somebody like Lawrence. It's harder the other way round, when you're trying to get people emotionally engaged in a film that's about a town, or a building, which I've done as well. [Laughs] Doing those other films was good training. If you can make those kind of films work, it's easier to come back to shooting people.

Lawrence of Belgravia screens this week in Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London - check the news section of production company Heavenly Films' website for details.


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