Four stars. Not rated, with profanity, sensuality and plenty of recreational drug use
By Derrick Bang
Director Mat Whitecross’ exhilarating indie, released three years ago but only now making its way on our side of the Atlantic, is a valentine to music fans of all ages, but particularly for those of us who — as teenagers — fell madly, passionately and hopelessly in love with One Special Album that ruled our lives, awake or asleep.
It became a personal soundtrack to eating, studying and falling in love: the songs that we discussed and dissected endlessly and enthusiastically to like-minded friends.
Whitecross and scripter Chris Coghill haven’t merely depicted the obsessive zeal of such devotion; their film is constructed with an inventive, vibrant bounce that spills youthful bliss from every frame. In that context, Spike Island belongs in the company of like-minded, music-laden predecessors such as The Commitments, That Thing You Do and, more recently, Begin Again.
All that said, American viewers are warned to anticipate accents so thick that subtitles wouldn’t have been amiss. I know, intellectually, that all these characters are speaking English in this British production, but the working-class Manchester accent is thick enough to give the most impenetrable Irish brogue a run for its money.
Which is to say, much as I enjoyed this first exposure, the eventual home-viewing experience will be even more satisfying, when I can turn on the DVD’s closed captions.
Coghill’s story, set in Manchester during the spring of 1990, follows five rough ’n’ tumble teenage lads who — like many of their fellow “Madchesterians” — have succumbed to the eponymous debut album by The Stone Roses, released the summer before and still ruling the charts. Beloved in great part because the band members were Manchester natives themselves, the album touched a nerve in rock and punk fans already marginalized by recession, mass unemployment, class wars and the recent poll tax riots.
Rock-inflected movements come in many sizes. Although lacking the massive historical shift signaled by the 1960s British invasion, The Stone Roses definitely fueled a Manchester-based mini-revolution that brought a shimmering, jangling illusion of hope to a subset of Briton that felt helpless and beaten down.
Mind you, at first blush this story’s young heroes — Gary “Tits” Titchfield (Elliot Tittensor), Darren “Dodge” Howard (Nico Mirallegro), Chris “Zippy” Weeks (Jordan Murphy), “Little Gaz” Duffy (Adam Long) and “Penfold” Andrew Peach (Oliver Heald) — seem little more than hooligans. They’re introduced while laying waste to their school with multiple cans of paint: a shrill anarchic act inspired by The Stone Roses themselves. (Check the LP cover of the aforementioned album.)
Alas, these lads are arrogant enough to include the name of their wannabe rock band — Shadowcaster — among the more obscure paint splotches, which rather blows their effort to remain under the radar the following day. Amazingly, the school principal doesn’t have them hauled off and locked up for criminal vandalism: a rather eyebrow-raising contrivance in Coghill’s script.
Get beyond that hiccup, though, and the rest is fairly smooth sailing.
But nothing is smooth for these lads, all of whom lead troubled, hard-scrabble lives in homes shattered by estranged or absentee parents and siblings, uncertain wages and a miasma of overall misery. Production designer Richard Bullock has done a marvelous job with the crowded working-class neighborhood in which Tits — our nominal hero — and his mates live; our first view of this cramped warren of homes is enough to induce claustrophobia.
Small wonder these kids so frequently flee into a substance-altered haze fueled by beer, grass and the occasional white pill. They’ve little else with which to amuse themselves, unless it’s the occasional stab at shoplifting.
Tits and Dodge, at least, can take refuge in their music. They drive whatever effort goes into their band, Zippy and Little Gaz mostly along for the companionship, and Penfold something of a goofy hanger-on who doesn’t play or sing, but just sorta tries to keep the momentum going.
Coghill’s narrative is driven by the news that The Stone Roses will be performing live three days hence, at Spike Island (an actual gig by that band, on May 27, 1990, in Widnes, that remains legendary to this day). Tits and his friends lack the funds for tickets, which are sold out anyway and at this point commanding stratospheric scalper prices.
But they can’t admit that to any of their school chums, and particularly not to the three girls loosely in their orbit: Sally (Emilia Clarke), Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Rachel (a young actress whose name, sadly, was omitted from the production notes). After hearing the guys boast of back-stage access, Sally suggests that they should make a demo tape and give it to the Roses, since they’ll be in such close proximity: a suggestion that Dodge takes very seriously, despite its total absurdity.
The bulk of the film, then, concerns the lads’ efforts to score tickets — with various schemes floated through Tits’ older brother, Ibiza Ste (Matthew McNulty), and other dodgy blokes dubbed Voodoo Ray and Keith Teeth, most of whom seem one short step from a five-year prison stretch — while Dodge micro-manages the creation of their demo tape.
As the story progresses, Tits and his friends blossom into more than simple ruffians. Each has issues at home, ranging from uncomfortable to heartbreaking. One suffers abuse at the hands of an authoritarian father; another dotes on two younger sisters who are ignored by their alcoholic mother. Rough edges notwithstanding, we grow to care deeply about these lads. Everybody in their lives seems to have given up on them; it seems churlish for us, as viewers, to do the same.
Tits devotes a portion of each day to visiting his hospitalized father, dying painfully from cancer, who hopes that his son will take over the family business: a flower stall. Although this represents a steady income, to Tits it signifies the grinding crush of conformity, and the end of any control over his own hopes and dreams.
And, just to make the interpersonal dynamics more interesting, Dodge has long worshipped Sally from afar, and even regards her as his unknowing muse. Trouble is, Tits also likes her: something he has kept to himself, out of loyalty to his best friend.
Whitecross handles his young cast quite well, and their evolution into sympathetic characters is persuasive. Tittensor’s Tits is the natural leader: the one to whom all the others turn, when a plan or situation goes awry (as all of them seem to). He’s the mature one, undoubtedly because the grim specter of death has forced pragmatism upon him.
Mirallegro’s Dodge is the quiet one: shy and oddly withdrawn, and uncertain of his own talent. Early on, during a visit to the local pub — the Dark Side — Dodge borrows a guitar to begin a tune, only to have the instrument snatched away by the condescending lead singer of a rival band. Mirallegro’s expression is pure dismay, and yet he lacks the gumption to object, or stand up for himself.
We grieve silently with him, suspecting — even this early — that Dodge likely is the most talented musician in the room.
Murphy’s Zippy is the token lunatic ... and, naturally, also their band’s drummer. Setbacks prompt him to roar with frustration, and he’s likely to attempt a head-butting solution. Heald’s Penfold is the goofball, always scrambling to keep up, but the others don’t regard him as a joke ... and, indeed, Penfold contributes some key flashes of brilliance.
Long’s Little Gaz, finally, often aligns with Zippy: two cut-ups content to do whatever Tits and Dodge suggest. On his own, though, Long shines in several brief scenes that carry considerable emotional weight. Both Long and Murphy are acting newcomers, making impressive debuts here.
Clarke, best known as the regal, white-haired Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones, is totally different here: a tough little chick who pals with equally hard-edged girlfriends, but who nonetheless radiates an earthy vulnerability that disarms everybody within range. Sally blossoms from background scenery to key supporting player when she unexpectedly bumps into Tits, during one of his stints at the family flower stall. Right then, we can tell: Everything has changed.
I’ve long maintained that opening credits reveal much about the movie to follow; filmmakers who take special care with the credits inevitably do the same throughout. That’s certainly the case here, with clever, paint-smeared credits that soon yield to equally inventive “ticking clock messages” that anticipate the upcoming Stone Roses concert. These various reminders (“36 hours to go”) appear on audiocassette labels and assorted other set-decorated elements, as we move from one narrative “chapter” to the next. They add to the overall sense of giddy fun.
Whitecross and Coghill manage a neat trick, blending so much chaotic gusto with an underlying narrative that literally sneaks up on us, and then — in hindsight — seems to have been obvious all along. Spike Island is a celebration of music-laden moments: little ones that carry their own momentary frisson, and the big ones — the really big ones — that we cherish forever.