The spectator arts blog

No-one's idea of a teen idol

Pamela Hutchinson

Lawrence really, really wants to be a pop star. He's sick of living in a council flat, being skint and using public transport like everyone else. He wants to live in a Mayfair penthouse and fly first-class, with a limo from the airport. In fact, he can't believe his friend, Bobby, hasn't introduced him to Kate Moss yet. They'd get on like a house on fire, Lawrence reckons. Besides, she could lend him the money he needs to make another album. Not that he could ever pay her back.

Lawrence has lots of famous friends like Bobby - that's Bobby Gillespie, from Primal Scream - because he used to be a big noise in the 1980s, when his first band, Felt, put out ten albums, and ten singles of delicate, poetic, indie music. But despite the trend for rock reunions, Lawrence has no interest in going back to those days and reforming Felt. He has had two bands since then, retro glam-rockers Denim and his current project 'B-side band' Go-Kart Mozart, neither of which have been giving Simon Cowell any sleepless nights.

Lawrence may not yet be the 'pensioner pop star' he dreams of becoming, but he is the leading man in a new film: Paul Kelly's documentary Lawrence of Belgravia (2011), which premiered at the ongoing London Film Festival last week and still has a couple of screenings to go. The movie was eight years in the making, and follows Lawrence as he records and gigs with Go-Kart Mozart, pausing to offer us his thoughts on life and the pursuit of fame from behind his baseball cap and aviator shades.

Director Kelly is best known for the videos and documentaries he has made for the band St Etienne, and this is definitely a pop-style movie. In between the interviews there are several montage sequences, soundtracked by Go-Kart Mozart songs.

Two in particular, while several minutes apart, contrast cruelly with each other. The first is a barrage of close-ups of memorabilia: gig tickets, posters, album covers, fanzines, badges and cuttings from the Felt and Denim days.

This flurry of dream bills and career high-points (Felt as a headline act! Playing with the Sugarcubes! Winning Single of the Week!) tells us that Lawrence has been acclaimed, loved by fans and the press. It's as close as we get to the early part of his career. Artistically, he reflects, Felt achieved everything they set out to do, but commercially, they were a 'disaster'.

In an ideal world, the second sequence would be all stadium tours, gold discs and champagne, as Go-Kart Mozart taste the success for which Lawrence has always yearned. But it's not.

Eviction notices, methadone prescriptions, medical records, rent bills and CBT flowcharts fill the screen instead. It's a raw moment. Lawrence talks openly about his money worries and says, briskly, 'I'm legally bonkers'; most of us would consider him to have bigger problems than perfecting the three-minute pop song. But Lawrence is intensely focused on his music, and the film refuses to portray its hero as a rock 'n' roll casualty.

Kelly is more interested in celebrating Lawrence's talent - and his baffling eccentricities, such as his belief that music sounds better if it has been wrapped in cardboard than plastic. Of course, Lawrence says, cardboard was better in the '60s and '70s than in the '80s, which is why he wears surgical gloves when handling his old records. He pauses. 'You don't know what I'm on about, do you?'

All the close-ups do, however, show that this movie is light on context. Kelly drops us in medias res into Lawrence's history. There's no real introduction to the Felt days, or more importantly the music, and there's no time taken to introduce the Bobbys, Duffys and Vaughans who populate Lawrence's world.

This deliberate obscurity is oh-so indie. If you don't know what's going, then clearly you're not a real fan. This is a film for people who spent more time reading the NME and Melody Maker than revising for their A-levels. They are the very people, no doubt, who love the music Lawrence made with Felt: tracks such as 'Primitive Painters', or 'The World is as Soft as Lace' and albums with off-putting titles, such as Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty.

They are the people who will desperately want Lawrence to be happy, to be successful, but who may not necessarily be excited by the tinny pop Go-Kart Mozart plays.

We see Lawrence and his many collaborators in the studio working and reworking tunes - but there's nothing here that is as beautiful as Felt's finest moments. And more to the point, in our hero's opinion, it's not chart-friendly pop, either. There's no gloss, no cool and, God love him, Lawrence is no one's idea of a teen idol.

This is an affectionate film, and Lawrence, terrifying ambition aside, seems like a sweet guy: witty and often very self-aware. I'm only sorry that it made me more nostalgic for Lawrence's past than hopeful for his future.

Pamela Hutchinson blogs at Silent London.