REVIEW

 
THE WONDERFUL AND FRIGHTENING WORLD OF MARK E SMITH [DVD]

A celebration of (almost) 30 years of the Fall, made for and aired by the BBC, this hour-long documentary looks back at the life of Manchester (and most of the rest of Britain)’s finest through the eyes and words of more media admirers than most bands could even dream of attracting.

Largely filmed around the taping of the Fall’s 24th and final John Peel session (Peel is an omnipresent presence throughout), Mark E Smith himself is the ringmaster, documenting his own career in the same laconic fashion as he performs his lyrics, riddled with those odd little observations that make his music so fascinating. You think you know where the sentence is leading, but as often as not it wanders off somewhere else, to cue in a snatch of music, or a flash of archive video. A summer '78 clip of the Fall on Tony Wilson’s What’s On is the earliest, appearances on The Tube, Whistle Test and more all follow.

Former bandmates (and there’s enough of them) poke their oar in, although they can do nothing more than provide the unnecessary historical glue that binds Smith’s own chronology together; the Fall’s written history, after all, is little more than a series of departures, punctuated by arrivals and records. It’s the development of Smith as an icon that best documents the passing of time, and that is something that mere sound and vision can never capture.

"I don’t know what I’m writing about half the time," he insists at one point and, although you know he’s lying, he’s also acknowledging that there has never been a fixed point from which the Fall take off, and that might well be their greatest asset. You switch on Bono or Springsteen, and you know exactly what they’re going to think. Switch on the Fall, and even Smith feels like a work in progress. Half the interviews are still trying to unravel Smith’s attitudes towards fame, success and his own popularity as the final credits roll.

This deliberate dislocation is only exaggerated as the show rolls on, and time begins speeding up. From "Eat Yourself Fitter" to "Hit The North" in less time than it took to reach "Bingo Master’s Breakout" might work from a scriptwriter’s point of view, but the Fall is not a movie (although bits read like a soap), and history should never be built around a TV schedule. And so the wonderful and frightening world of Mark E Smith remains untouched by the show, at the same time as the show enjoys unparalleled access to that world. It’s an enjoyable hour, to be sure. But the records tell you just as much. - Dave Thompson

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November 17 , 2006