AN EXTRAORDINARY NEW FLY ON THE WALL DOCUMENTARY BY DIRECTOR JACK BOND – WHOSE PREVIOUS CLOSE QUARTERS SUBJECTS HAVE INCLUDED ROALD DAHL AND SALVADOR DALI, AND WHO COLLABORATED WITH PET SHOP BOYS ON THE 1987 FILM IT COULDN’T HAPPEN HERE – OFFERS INSIGHT INTO ADAM ANT’S EFFORTS TO STAGE A COMEBACK FOLLOWING YEARS OF MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS AND ARTISTIC OBLIVION.
After what seemed as if it would be Ant’s last release (1995 album WONDERFUL; an anachronism in that it made the Top Thirty more than a decade on from his glory days), Britain’s mood continued a trajectory away from the conspicuous consumerism which, broadly speaking, had characterised the previous fifteen years. In apparently more enlightened times many used the shortcut of mocking former heroes as a way of removing themselves – as if stripping them of meaning also stripped out complicity in the vulgar excesses of the 1980s. For a while, no I LOVE THE ’80s compendium could pass by without some talking head or other casting mind back to school discos, crossing arms in an embarrassed approximation of Adam & The Ants’ PRINCE CHARMING dance and then cringing with disdain at the utter hollowness of it all.
Fuelled by a love for Bowie’s chop-and-change charisma, the sci-fi sexuality of early Roxy Music, the subversiveness in the work of sculptor Allen Jones and the do it! spirit of punk rock (specifically the alchemy of Sex Pistols’ debut gig in late 1975), Stuart Goddard’s art college melting-pot imagination produced Adam Ant and a penchant for constructing heavily stylised songs for him to sing and highly visual characters for him to play. The outré S&M fetishist for debut album DIRK WEARS WHITE SØX, white-stripe warpaint warrior for KINGS OF THE WILD FRONTIER, flintlock-toting highwayman for STAND AND DELIVER, PRINCE CHARMING’s rococo dandy, cajun twister for FRIEND OR FOE bubblegum rocker astronaut for APOLLO 9 all came and went during a five year period which included sixteen Top Forty singles, five Top Twenty albums, countless magazine covers and iconic videos.
But the flamboyance was eventually rewritten and translated back down as little more than cheap pantomime chutzpah – daft old Stu covering himself in Bostik again, and rolling around in the dressing-up box to see what stuck. On this new, authentic, post-Stone Roses, post-REM, post-Nirvana planet there was no place in the cultural landscape for trowelling on vaudevillian slap and Carry On-winking at the nearest camera. Like carefree Duran Duran flaunting it on their RIO yacht and countless other ’80s moments since held up as assaults on decency, sense or restraint – and the ears – Ant was deemed surplus to pop requirements and fell so far from respect and favour that should he ever fall back in the landing might kill him.
Commercial success, already waning, nosedived after a misjudged showing at Live Aid in July 1985 and he struggled to salvage the nuts and bolts of his career from the wreckage. Like Madonna and Bowie – both of whom also made weight from rebranding for each album – Ant had exercised incredible force of will in fashioning a way to the top. But, unlike Dave and Madge, once there he perhaps just didn’t have enough material with the broad appeal of his big hits to smudge out mistakes and sustain heady days – though there are undeniably great songs throughout his discography (CARTROUBLE, LADY, ZERØX, ANTS INVASION, DOG EAT DOG, BEAT MY GUEST, SCORPIOS, PICASSO VISITA EL PLANETA DE LOS SIMIOS, DESPERATE BUT NOT SERIOUS).
Post-success bit hard. A bizarre and very public incident in early 2002 resulted in prosecution for affray. Heckled out of a pub in Kentish Town, Ant threw a car alternator through the window and returned with a firearm (a starter pistol). The judge presiding over the case noted that he’d been in a ‘hypomanic state’ at the time, and psychiatric care – including, eventually, sectioning and forcible sedation – followed. With its ghastly title suggesting the worst kind of cheap and cheerless hatchet job, Channel 4’s 2003 film THE MADNESS OF PRINCE CHARMING actually offered sensitive and sympathetic treatment of a man severely black-dogged in a long history of Bipolar Disorder. Bond picks up the story almost a decade on (not long after a further sectioning) and although a genuine rapport develops between genial filmmaker and intense subject, THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR’s genius is in the way it sits back. The camera often just loiters non-judgementally as Ant peels away the layers and gradually reveals himself, rather than Bond trying to force the issue and ending up with something of a distortion to fit an agenda. Situations are presented completely without voiceover, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about where Ant might be at these days.
THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR chronicles parts of 2011; a year in which Ant spent time living in Paris, strung together the low key World Tour Of London (playing small and mid-sized venues to, it must be noted, good numbers) and set about compiling a comeback album. According to Ant himself, during an impromptu and informal late-night interview section at Bond’s fireside, his life is “… not about mental illness – it’s about passion and music and wanting to make great records and be better than everybody else”.
Whether ADAM ANT IS THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR IN MARRYING THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER (eventually issued in January 2013, and duelling with Fiona Apple for the honour of being the most unwieldy album title of all time) actually turned out to be a great record or better than everybody else’s is, of course, a matter of opinion. It had its moments (VINCE TAYLOR and COOL ZOMBIE), was certainly as committed and passionate as most of his earlier work, and detailed a scattergun creative mind in a state of constant shift. At seventeen tracks it was also, perhaps, overlong – and a sequence in Bond’s film in the back of a cab before a gig chimes. Ant, leaning to the manic side (or, to be fair, perhaps in a state of pre-show over-excitement) explains his 31 – yes, 31 – song setlist for the evening. Other slightly alarming moments include him going AWOL in Paris after having arranged a café rendezvous with Bond, only to be found with a brocanteur on another spending spree (though his good eye and sense of taste are without question; old movie posters, a regal dandy figurine, antique crockery, a vintage guitar, a stack of ancient 45s and, potentially, a classic motorbike from a guy in Nantes Bond happens to mention).
Beautifully paced, Bond’s film details various events – some funny, some sad, some moving, some appalling – around the making of the album. Punk scribe John Robb, encouraging and clearly feeling honoured, drops by to hear it and Ant loses himself in the record at his own kitchen listening party. Actress Charlotte Rampling visits him in a recording studio to discuss the idea of collaboration, the faintest whiff of awkward embarrassment seeming to hang in the air for all. Hip producer Mark Ronson tells him that DOG EAT DOG is a playlist staple before any recording session. He visits Allen Jones at home and the sculptor produces something which, heart-stoppingly, brings Ant face-to-face with art-school kid Stuart Goddard. There is onstage aggression on behalf of his recently deceased stepfather, and there is a fall from a ten-foot stage during one of his gigs – which he somehow heroically turns back in his favour. Comically, there is annoyance with an overawed BBC crew so inept and fumbling in his presence it feels as if it must be a scene from the sitcom he never made and, similarly, a moment of holding court with a group of female pals (seeming like the best not-gay gay friend each of them has). There is also an astonishing section – almost obscene – where his backing singer straddles him and they dry-hump for the recording some sound-of-orgasm vocals on his super-steamy version of JE T’AIME. Even Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland might find themselves having to look away and weep.
THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR begins with lonely shots of 2011 Ant, on the steps of the Albert Memorial at the edge of empty Hyde Park, crosscut with the younger man in exactly the same location (taken from Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk film JUBILEE). Both look out over Kensington Gore to the opulence of the Royal Albert Hall. The subtext is immediately apparent – the enormous challenge ahead in making any comeback – and the effect of the parallel is poignant. Here are two men with almost nothing. An ambitious youth with the larger part of his defining history yet to occur and the middle-aged man whose glory days are gone but whose belief in his work, strength of character and determination to persevere each burns so brightly still that – despite the attempts of trouble to reduce him – he’s prepared to take it all on again.
Ant is a captivating presence throughout – flawed but impossible not to warm to (particularly when guard is lowered and frailties exposed in the more intimate and earnest moments with Bond). The film ends as he waits nervously in the wings and then walks out onto the stage at Hyde Park before an audience of – amazingly – 55,000 in June 2011. After the opening sequence 99 minutes (or 33 years) before, it’s an incredibly uplifting scene of true joy. THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR triumphs. Character and film.
Order Jack Bond’s ADAM ANT – THE BLUEBLACK HUSSAR here.