Pulp’s fanbase is made up of people who want to blow Jarvis first and maybe listen to his music second. That’s fine, I’m not judging anyone. I mean do you think Meg White is my favorite drummer because of her steadfast dedication to progressing the art of percussion in the 21st century? In Pulp’s new rockumentary “Life, Death and Supermarkets,” frontman Jarvis Cocker talks about only getting into music to get laid. I buy it. I’ve never known him as anything but a sex symbol for whispy university types who pride themselves on being aware of semi-obscure Brit poppers that aren’t Blur. His image probably has a lot to do with his initial intent and that’s probably why this film is little more than a handjob for Pulp. A detail that no one in the audience at the Los Angeles premiere of the film this August seemed to notice or mind all that much.
Talking about whether or not this film is good or bad would be useless. If you’ve heard about it and you’re going to see it, you’ll like it because you like Pulp and that’s the drill with this shit. I could regale you with stories of how the real stars of the movie are the eccentric characters of Sheffield the film introduces us to: the struggling musician who met his girlfriend in a sanitarium, the charming newspaperman who went missing before the film’s premiere, and the ancient knife maker who wishes to ply his trade well into the afterlife. This is the stuff that everyone is gonna buzz about. That and Jarvis of course… champion of the underdog that he is. Personally I’m more interested in the strange and the unspoken, what was left out and what hasn’t been said yet.
I never figured out what the name of the film meant (Life, Death & Supermarkets), but it didn’t matter because the medium really was message: Jarvis Cocker himself presented a film that Jarvis Cocker conceived, it starred Jarvis Cocker and featured a lot of other people talking about Jarvis Cocker. Get it? It opens with Jarvis talking about a dream he had of doing something he calls ordinary: changing a tire. “Isn’t it funny, when you can have everything it’s the little things you want?” he says. Later he laments that by becoming famous he lost his normality. Actually, he compares becoming famous to being kidnapped, as if it were something that happened against his will. Jarvis muses about what it’s like to be the audience. Us “blobs of blurry flesh” he sees (or saw) nightly. What might we do at our day jobs? How do we have sex? Do we get married, do we get pregnant? What’s giving birth like? It’s strange to hear him pine after being a common person because Jarvis Cocker lays this all out straight-faced. As if he’s completely forgotten that he’s the rock star he is today because of a song he wrote once where he made fun of a privileged girl slumming around and daring to sample the delicious depravity of the poor with their fags and their pool and their dancing, drinking and screwing in roach-infested flats.
Somehow while he was busy being made into a life-sized cake, moving to London, fighting Michael Jackson and coming up with the idea for a film that he starred in and toured across America; he became something like what he satirized so precisely on the album Different Class. It happens. His lyrics were cutting and aware but none of that insight is on display in the movie. He really just plays the part of Jarvis Cocker – fumbling suave rock star extraordinaire. At one point during an interview while he’s running his awkward genius routine the director asks him if the interview itself is a performance. Jarvis freezes and goes doe-eyed before replying that maybe the only time he’s not performing is when he’s asleep. As if to imply the forever adolescent guru of lithe chic is ever anywhere but dreamland these days. But whatever. It’s not like he’s publicly come out against self-obsessed behavior before or anything.
It would be unfair to single out Jarvis or Pulp as self involved. Any band worth their salt eventually shits out a vanity piece and calls it a documentary. For example my personal favorite is Smashing Pumpkins’ Vieuphoria. It’s a dreamy video collage of the band during their forgotten “space cadet” phase when everyone still had hair, before the world was a vampire and Billy Corgan was discussing the illuminati on Infowars. Whatever. Is Life, Death and Supermarkets self-indulgent? Yes, absolutely. Of fucking course, but fluff films like this aren’t marketed to anyone who isn’t already a die hard fan so it’s a niche market artifact that fans are clamouring to own.The cost of the production will easily be recouped on the direct market (thats my review). What was off putting about Life, Death, and Supermarkets was “Pulp” as the everyman or the “heroes of Sheffield” schtick they played up.
See the angle is that Pulp are the local yokels done good, straight out of Sheffield they went on to conquer the world while keeping their feet firmly on the ground back home. Boy, who would have expected that a small town in the north of England could produce such a pop sensation? Well, how about anyone who’s heard this or this or this or this or even this? For a city of barely 500k Sheffield boasts an uncanny amount of successful and influential rockstars. With that in mind let me say something very serious and very important that I never thought I’d get the chance to legitimately say in my life: This film was haunted by the spectre of the Human League.
See, one of the opening shots of the film is a giant sign fixed to an apartment building that says in letters 12 feet tall: “Don’t You Want Me Baby? #1 song”. The sign of course is advertising the Human League’s number one smash hit of the same name. There is no narration or context given for this, its a random and mysterious piece of B-roll. Later Pulp’s drummer admits in defeat that Pulp always wished they could have been more popular but the pop scene was filled with a certain “type”’ (class?) of people that they don’t ‘get on’ with.
Stinks like sour pulpy grapes to me. Watching this documentary you get the idea that Pulp was the only band to break out of Sheffield. In reality they’re barely in the top five. Meanwhile fellow Sheffielders, The Human League, not only outsold Pulp 2-1 but have them beat in the ‘hometown hero’ category as well since their frontman never fucked off to London and can still be found walking his dog and helping turn over the crashed cars of starry eyed reality show hosts there. The Human League are the band Pulp pretends to be and wishes they were in this film. Maybe the cryptic shot of the ‘Don’t you Want Me Baby’ sign snuck itself in as a clue: Yes, they do want you (baby) but they don’t wanna talk about it. If you’re making such a fuss about Pulp being Sheffield’s finest, it’s hideously disingenuous not to mention the rich musical history of the city, the fact that Jarvis actually left well over 20 years ago and that Pulp isn’t even near the top of the pops when it comes to Sheffield’s musical exports.
So Life, Death and Supermarkets isn’t bad, but–like I said–that doesn’t matter. You’ll walk away feeling as satisfied as you can expect from a commercial for a band that you loved when they were relevant. For me, there were a lot of mixed feelings, an emotional journey from nostalgia to incredulity. Try not to fall for the hometown hero line and embrace what Jarvis has become: As the film ends and he’s pointing at the audience repeating, “I want to live with Common People like you,” know that he means it, he really means it. Maybe in a way that he didn’t understand or intend when he wrote it.
‘Life, Death, & Supermarkets” opened on the 19th across America and will be available for digital download everywhere on Friday, November 21.