“I AM NOT JESUS THOUGH I HAVE THE SAME INITIALS / I AM THE MAN WHO STAYS HOME AND DOES THE DISHES” SANG JARVIS COCKER (IN DISHES, A SONG FROM 1998 PULP ALBUM THIS IS HARDCORE).
“I never once remember seeing him with a fucking dishcloth in his hand,” reflects ex-Cocker flatmate, former Pulp guitarist and bluff leveller Richard Hawley, standing in a record shop with a copy of THIS IS HARDCORE in his hand during Florian Habicht’s affectionate new film. It’s one of several moments in it which dissolves the perceived shield of celebrity with a dose of Northern salts.
Habicht shot eighteen months ago around what seems likely to have been the band’s last ever concert, fittingly at Sheffield Arena, though much of the ‘action’ in PULP – A FILM ABOUT LIFE, DEATH & SUPERMARKETS takes place elsewhere in the city; on streets and doorsteps and in parks, precincts and markets. His 85 minutes reinforce the idea of a hand-in-glove fit for subject and environment, showing Pulp in the context of their home and Sheffield in the context of the band. In voiceover towards the end, as the amount of live footage becomes denser, Cocker reveals a fascination with the idea that musicians can feel themselves to be “centre of the universe” during a gig when so much life is going on outside the venue in that moment: “Some people will be bored out of their minds watching the telly, some people will be scoring some drugs, somebody’ll be giving birth, somebody’ll be dying”…
Though never shown scoring drugs, giving birth or dying, local characters offer their tuppence worth on life in what Cocker calls “a medium-sized Northern city”. Ageing knife-maker Stan (so happy with his lot that if his time came around again he’d choose to make knives again). Newspaper kiosk vendor Terry (likes Pulp, loves WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS). Musician Bomar (“accidentally once” moved to London but returned because in Sheffield “you probably know the people who mug you”). Librarian Sarah (refusing to dye grey hair, empowered by HELP THE AGED). The café full of pensioners singing it (staged but life-affirming – positioning the band’s songs in the realms of folk music). The all-female choir belting out COMMON PEOPLE with uninhibited middle-aged gusto. The teenage dance troupe; the junior girls’ football team. And two children, aged nine or so.
Habicht plays DISCO 2000 (Pulp’s 1995 paean to the passing of time and the loss of childhood innocence) to boy Rio and girl Liberty. His intention, if the pair are not actually sister and brother, is presumably to riff off lyrics about growing up, getting married and never splitting up. They’re asked their thoughts on the future and Liberty, impossibly poignant, says it all. She wants to “… spend as much time as I can as a little girl”. She seems to sense life’s wall just around the corner.
The cumulative effect of these moments, these people – captivating to the last, heroes all – is the notion that every single one of us might actually be a mis-shape, mistake, misfit. Cocker himself? Fame “didn’t agree with” him, he says: “Like a nut allergy”.
“Are you ready to go mental?” spell out green lasers just before the band’s arena show begins. And, seconds later, a sharp arched eyebrow puncturing the pomp: “Safe mental, that is”…
The performance footage is an electrifying record of Cocker’s onstage charisma – voguing like some cheap porno Pierrot one minute or, the next, right, just, y’know, like, chatting to 20,000, yeah? It wasn’t always this way. A glimpse of pre-success Pulp (though the archives are not raided by Habicht and the longer story remains untold) comes from footage of a show at Sheffield’s Leadmill in late 1988. It’s quite telling. Cocker’s parting gesture to his home city before heading off to live in London was to be, by the scale of his ambition, spectacular. But band members recall the challenge of their frontman’s imagination was not met; a saucer of dry ice, a couple of household fans as wind machines, a feeble amount of ticker tape ‘snow’ falling at his feet, a broken projector meaning conceptual film had to be shown on a domestic TV set wrapped in tin-foil. It’s quaint when contrasted with the virtually military amount of kit rigged up for Pulp’s arena farewell – despite almost two decades of success, a show Cocker describes as a chance to finally put right Leadmill wrongs.
In the Introduction of MOTHER, BROTHER, LOVER, his 2011 book of lyrics, Cocker describes how moving away from Sheffield allowed him to look back and see it clearly, and that his desire to examine the less obvious places for inspiration (that is, less obvious because they are right under the nose) was a need to establish truths. Like Morrissey and Mark E Smith, like Simon Armitage, Alex Turner, Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, like John Cooper Clarke, and perhaps even Peter Kay at his Phoenix Nights best, Cocker sifted the mundane to find meaning.
Florian Habicht – a New Zealander – joins that august list. In the end it’s debatable whether the beautiful PULP – A FILM ABOUT LIFE, DEATH & SUPERMARKETS is actually about Pulp at all. It’s there in the title; of course it isn’t. The band is a mirror(ball) and by holding it up to reflect some light onto Sheffield he seems to locate and diagnose the Northern condition perfectly.
Order PULP – A FILM ABOUT LIFE, DEATH & SUPERMARKETS here.