Nick Broomfield Interview
Nick Broomfield changed his customary guerilla hand-held camera style for something slower and more elegaic on his latest film Whitney: Can I Be Me.
Check out my Quietus interview with the acclaimed film-maker Nick Broomfield (link here, and in full below).
Every so often director Nick Broomfield applies his hand-held, investigative style of film-making to a music industry story, building a provocative narrative around controversial figures, as he did with Kurt and Courtney (1997) and Biggie and Tupac (2002).
What’s compelling about these documentaries is the way Broomfield places himself at the centre of the film as a slightly puzzled, frustrated character, tracking oddball interviewees with his furry mic down dead ends and cul de sacs, occasionally turning up gems and penetrating insight.
For Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ he took a different approach. He had access to hours of unseen footage from her 1999 world tour shot by film-maker and video director Rudi Dolezal. The archive included rare interviews with Whitney’s personal assistant Robyn Crawford and her mother Cissy. Broomfield used these alongside original interviews with Arista publicist Ken Reynolds, close friends, and her longterm bodyguard David Roberts to create a picture of a sensitive, defensive, vulnerable woman. In a way, it is a more conventional music doc, telling a powerful story of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, her astronomical rise, and the complicated relationship triangle between Whitney, Robyn and swingbeat star Bobby Brown. It also covers her drug addiction and tragic death in 2012 at the age of 48.
What’s beguiling about Broomfield’s approach is his combination of awkwardness and singlemindedness, something that Louis Theroux has developed in his presenting style. It’s reassuring somehow that in person Broomfield is the same character on screen - thoughtful, chatty and a bit boyish, despite his 69 years. He has clearly been touched by Whitney’s story, and wants to talk about what he sees as her insurmountable struggles.
Your film has a feel for that claustrophobic backstage life – the hotel rooms, the dressing rooms, the tourbus. It’s a small, hermetically sealed world. And ironic that despite mass audiences, at the top level that world is so small.
Nick Broomfield: So small. And they don’t want to let anyone else in. They don’t want to explain their existence. Whitney had to sing her heart out to thousands of people, and afterwards she just wanted to slop out in a track suit or muck around with Bobby.
You haven’t put yourself at the centre this time, or showed the process of film-making. Why is that?
NB: For a long time the film wasn’t working. The first cuts had more of me in them, but there wasn’t enough of Whitney. The emotion wasn’t there. When we started putting Whitney into the film – her voice, her emotion – we saw the whole thing through her eyes and it became her film. It was very much more moving, and I became wonderfully irrelevant. In fact I was positively interfering with this film we were constructing. The BBC, who commissioned the film, wanted more of me, but I just took myself out completely. They said, Not only have you ignored our notes, but you have gone in the opposite direction. Then they saw what we were going for and were supportive.
With access to close friends and some of her inner circle, what were the rules of engagement? Was there pressure to whitewash difficult areas, like her lesbian side?
NB: Not really. I don’t think there has been a film yet with so much about Robyn. My film is a very accurate depiction of a friendship that started very young; these two were inseparable. They lived together and undoubtedly were romantically involved. Suddenly the media found out and harassed her. She didn’t want to deal with it and the record company I’m sure were, ‘You can’t be a lesbian.’ Whitney was very with Robyn. She had a loving, supportive relationship that enabled her to be as strong as she was for as long as she was.
Do you think her relationship with Bobby Brown was genuine?
NB: I do actually. I think she was very funny, and a prankster. She just wanted a laugh and a good time and Bobby Brown was exactly the same. He had a similar background, he was outrageous. She was endlessly amused by him.
In making the film what did you learn about the 1980s music industry?
NB: I think it’s amazing there was a black and white division, and a whole notion about crossing someone over from the black to the white division. That is so weird, such segregation, such a racially bigoted country.
For people who grow up in a place like Newark (which has actually got worse) it is so hard. The schools are terrible and it’s hard to get out of there. Whitney’s enormous success was a way out. Not only did she get her family out and her friends, but other people as well. She had to take this entourage of 50 people with her, wherever she went. She was generous enough to do it. Whitney paved the way for the Rihannas and Beyonces, but paid such a massive price for it.
Thinking of Whitney, Prince, Michael Jackson and George Michael (Madonna seems to be the only ‘80s superstar who has survived), do you think the 1980s music industry was a high risk environment? Was there no safeguarding?
NB: Some people were super together and had a real business sense (eg Mick Jagger, Bono). They had a vision of themselves and how to survive it. But it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do and I think they are the exception. They know what they want from it as opposed to being controlled by it.
It’s like trying to control a huge juggernaut.
NB: Yeah! I think although Whitney could have been a lot more powerful, she didn’t know how to be that person. Part of the problem was she never wrote her own music or controlled the music she sang. For some reason she remained dependent on the record company and didn’t really empower herself.
She was so young, only 19 when she set the template. Clive Davis (Arista A&R) was a father figure, and her mother Cissy controlled her.
NB: She tried hard to get away from them and didn’t succeed.
Do you think Robyn was her gatekeeper?
NB: She was, for a long time. But it was hard to be her gatekeeper when Bobby Brown was around. The two of them were so lunatic together; they’d do whatever. Their consumption of everything (drugs, alcohol) was off the charts. Robyn just about managed to keep things together, but it was difficult. She was the one who still had some influence.
It did seem that once Robyn was out of the picture Whitney was much more vulnerable.
NB: There was no hope really. Whitney left upstate New York to get away from her family, and went down to Atlanta to be with Bobby’s family, who were pretty wild. Things got a lot worse down there.
What surprised you most while you were making this film?
NB: How funny the real Whitney was, what a prankster, how down to earth. She was a lot of fun to hang out with, rather than this remote beauty onstage.
She could also be combative, particularly with journalists.
NB: Part of being a prankster is that you are. I’m sure she could be quite stubborn. She was opinionated and she clearly didn’t know how to deal with the press. She was her own worst enemy sometimes. People would ask a question she didn’t want to answer and she would be downright rude back. Rather than a smooth PR machine to pour syrup over everything, which is what you need, she would get really upset and outraged. That was understandable. She was a singer, not a PR agent. Past a certain point she became fair game and wasn’t respected.
She was the American princess who strayed. People were unforgiving and didn’t understand her trajectory. She was having a real problem being this ‘pop star’ person. She couldn’t find a way of saying, I’m not that person, this is me. She’d have to tell Clive Davis to take a running jump and disassociate herself from the record business. She’d have to take on her whole family. They were all making a fortune off her and having a very nice lifestyle. It would be a Herculean task to break free from that, and would require someone who was incredibly aware of themselves. She didn’t know how to take her destiny and make it her own. She could never be the big person. She became smaller and smaller, and retreated more and more. There was this fabulous person who had all these great plans, she was the New Jersey girl with incredible chutzpah, but she ultimately didn’t have that power, she didn’t know how to make that jump.
You’ve become known for making investigative, experimental films. What do you see as the future of music documentary?
NB: I think it’s massive. There is such an inbuilt audience for that kind of thing. They have to be told in a way that is different – it can’t be another boring old biopic. Music documentaries are hard to tell, but I think they’re an amazing vehicle to look at racism, our attitude to sex, the way we judge drugs. There’s the ability to get a big audience because of these incredible, iconic, charismatic people. You can look at a number of issues – the challenge is to make sure you choose something that has all those issues. Popular music is like a mirror of culture, of who we are.
Miki Berenyi, Emma Anderson and Phil King are back on board. Photography by Lush.
US Tour, September 2016
Widely considered the best band in the ‘shoegaze’ revival, Lush are currently doing a vibrant, sold-out tour of the US – they played their first NYC show in twenty years on 14 September, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
I caught up with Miki today to hear about how the US tour is going. ‘We’ve played two New York shows. I had a fucking great time last night especially. The Terminal 5 crowd was amazing, really enthusiastic. I loved it! We added Nothing Natural and Lost Boy to the set. That's 17 songs in the main set - longer than we ever played back in the day. I guess gigs are more expensive now and you feel you have to give people their money’s worth!
We have Tamaryn supporting again. We had such a great time with them on the west coast shows, we decided to keep them!’
The band are touring the US and Canada until 27 September, when they play Portland. They have been going from strength to strength. I saw them at the Camden Roundhouse in May, and then again recently in St Malo (see review).
Lush at La Route Du Rock. Photography by Malcom Boyle.
Lush – La Route du Rock, St Malo – 14th August, 2016
Sublime Dream Pop in North West France
Lush were near the top of the bill at this summer’s La Route du Rock, Brittany’s biannual music festival. The baroque tones of beatnik vamp singer/songwriter Julia Holter provided a good warm-up for Lush’s spacious pop.
Kicking off with the shimmering chords and rich harmonies of ‘Deluxe’, they captivated the crowd from the start. Lush’s strength lies in the way they fold jagged edges and minor chords into the mix, switching with ease from wall of guitar to sardonic pop to plunging soundscape.
They played material from all their albums, skipping from ‘Kiss Chase’ and ‘Hypocrite’ to ‘Out of Control’, the lead single from their current EP. One of the high points was a majestic, moving performance of ‘Desire Lines’, their music reverberating around the festival site as the sun was setting. Another key moment was ‘Ladykillers’, Miki swinging with her guitar and insouciant vocals, Emma cutting in with brilliantly timed responses, and Justin and Phil locked into a defiant groove. ‘I was playing with Chris’s old snare drum,’ Justin told me afterwards, pleased that he could incorporate a flavour of the late Chris Acland’s style in their new sound.
Miki’s between-song banter has become a feature of their live shows. At St Malo she burst out, ‘I’m really sorry about Brexit. None of us here voted for it!’ The crowd seemed bemused. ‘Thank you Lush. I’m so glad you are here,’ called out a girl from the swathe of fans at the front of the stage.
Lush play with concentration, immersion, taking all the floating voters with them. They finished with an emotional, epic ‘Sweetness and Light’, its shifting time changes and ethereal guitar defining the night.
Wivien Goldman (1979). Photography by David Corio.
Vivien Goldman Resolutionary (Staubgold)
NY pop professor revisits her punk past with some luminaries
Now based in New York, teaching at the Clive Davis Institute and writing her blog, Vivien Goldman gets back into the musical fray with a collection of her early songs (from 1979-81).
Vivien has always had a great way of getting people together, and with these tracks she created a post-industrial playground of dub, punk, reggae and electronic vibes with key collaborators. For the ‘Dirty Washing’ tracks ‘Launderette’ and ‘Private Armies’ George ‘Aswad’ Oban plays fluid, funky basslines, Keith Levene scratches out avant-guitar and Adrian Sherwood creates a dark dub soundscape. Vivien sings feminist polemic (“If you can’t get a hard-on get a gun”) and domestic bathos (“I wanted ten pence for the drier/You needed board and lodging.”)
Included here is her work with The Flying Lizards, classy jazz interlopers centred around the nucleus of David Toop and Steve Beresford. They had a huge hit in 1979 with ‘Money’, making shiny, deranged pop that accidentally went mainstream. Vivien didn’t sing on ‘Money’ but her silky voice glides over the funky dub of ‘Her Story’ and ‘The Window’ (which features Viv Albertine on angular guitar).
The collection concludes with songs Vivien recorded in Paris as the multi-roots ensemble Chantage. She works instinctively, her vocals weaving around steel pan lines and Jerry Malekani’s Zairean guitar. Annie Whitehead and Deadley Headley play joyful brass, and a young Neneh Cherry is on backing vocals. This is where Vivien really hits her stride as an artist. It’s a shame the CD stops there. Any current stuff will be eagerly received!
Promarty at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Photography by Beth Sather.
Promartyr – Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London – 14th July, 2016
Detroit garage rockers decimate Bethnal Green...
Framed onstage by tinsel and a giant pink heart, Protomartyr brought their gritty, ground-stamping Detroit work ethic to Bethnal Green and a rapturous crowd. With his dry lyrics and dead-pan delivery, vocalist Joe Casey is the perfect counterpoint to the rococo melodies and driving rhythms of the rest of the band – particularly Alex Leonard’s rigorous drumming.
Now onto their third album, Protomartyr make you think of post-punk cousins like Pere Ubu, Wire and of course, The Fall, but they still have their own defiant thing. It is gloriously emotional and self-flagellating. They mostly perform tracks from their latest album The Agent Intellect, and the high point is an epic version of ‘Pontiac ’87’. This song starts with an image of the Pope celebrating mass at the Detroit Silverdome – now a semi-abandoned football stadium – and ends with an existential reflection on friendship and change. “There’s no use being sad about it,” chants Casey, with the crowd joining in, “What’s the point of cryin’ about it.”
A rousing end to a brilliant evening. More London dates to follow this year, and I’m hooked.