Sunday, July 10, 2011

#191: Jubilee

(Derek Jarman, 1978)

Punk is the most mysterious of all musical sub-genres, primarily because any rejection of mainstream society must face an existential dilemma when it is embraced by the mainstream. The irony of punk's founding was that many of the core themes of both the music and the culture that sprung up around it were no different than the themes upon which rock 'n' roll was originally based. London Calling, the best punk record ever made, doesn't sound so far from early Stones or many of the harder Lennon songs in the Beatles catalog. Yet because the movement prided itself on sprouting from working-class England and planted its flag in the decidedly anti-commercialism camp, the move into the conventional narrative of rock was an extremely uncomfortable one. This was further complicated by The Sex Pistols, an overrated band with a handful of good songs that nevertheless managed to become the quintessential punk band - despite the fact that they were in many ways an inauthentic attempt (if self-consciously and ironically so) to sell-out the movement. Punk's end goal for bands like this was to be able to say "fuck you" to the establishment while cashing the checks anyway.

All of this has bearing on Jubilee, a dull and muddled cult film that nevertheless takes an intelligent stab at quantifying the movement within the context of contemporary Britain. I never found myself grabbing hold of any of the various abstract and only tangentially connected moments in the film. The message may have been lost on me - if the film has a message at all beyond being against messages. The premise is clever enough: Elizabeth I asks an alchemist in her court to show her the future, and what is revealed is a dystopian Britain ruled by girl gangs and cackling producers. This is just a vague outline, however, for the film to wander around in, alternating between surreal fantasies and throwaway philosophical confrontations. Finally, the movie just becomes a drag.

There are two main approaches to a film attempting to capture the energy of a musical movement (or moment). The first is the document approach - depicting what being a part of the scene was like and attempting to bring to the music a better understanding of its context. Sometimes this is done on purpose (see Monterey Pop) and sometimes it just happens because of the material the filmmaker had available to them (see Border Radio). But either way these films become incredibly valuable to music fans, particularly those who are partial to the specific movement being covered. The second way is to attempt to evoke the movement's philosophy through either thematic or technical devices (or both). This is a much more perilous path - not only because music and film are such different mediums, but because films are relatively exorbitantly expensive to make. Even when you are dealing with the most lo-fi genre of all, recreating a philosophy is going to run you big numbers.

That's not to imply that Jubilee fails because it has a low budget. I just mean to emphasize the difficulty of transferring a feeling from music to film, and why virtually all of the best music films fall into the former "document" camp. Jubilee is an interesting attempt to catch the lightning of punk in England in the late 70s, it just can't keep up.


  1. As usual, nicely written review and I appreciate your insights on the film. Jubilee is a mess, I agree.

    But I have to take issue with a couple of points you raise, as one who was actively involved in the punk scene from the perspective of a 16 year old kid living in suburbia but still intent on getting my hands on whatever "punk rock" was available to me thru my local record store in Bay Area California at the time. London Calling is NOT the best punk album ever made, because The Clash were already post-punk in their own way when they released Give 'Em Enough Rope. They stopped being a punk band when that album came out and they started advertising themselves as "the only band that matters" in magazines like Rolling Stone. All their singles leading up to GEER were pretty great though. But Mick Jones was in the process of selling out fueled by his pop star dreams. Even though they remained a great live band for a few years, London Calling was a point of departure between The Clash and many of their earliest (genuine punk) US fans. Sandinista! was the last straw, as they were trying to out-Springsteen Springsteen. After that, we most definitely went our separate ways.

    Second, you're interpreting the Sex Pistols in hindsight, through Malcolm McLaren's post-break-up marketing scheme. Of course his angle is important and essential to the history of the Pistols, but the sell-out stuff came out relatively late, really only after they played their last show at Winterland (which I attended) and Malcolm needed some kind of narrative thread to wrap around "Who Killed Bambi" which became the botch-job of "The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle."

    It's been a couple years since I watched Jubilee, and it'll probably be at least that long before I give it another go, at the pace my own Criterion blog is crawling along! :)

  2. Great points, clearly from a true punk purist. :)

    First, I was definitely intending to be provocative by saying London Calling was a punk record - probably only the title track can lay claim to any true punk credentials, and even then it's pretty distant. I don't know if I would qualify them as post-punk so I'm glad you used the qualifier of "in their own way," since they were more deconstructing punk's influences on London Calling than they were actually moving forward into post punk (have you read Rip It Up and Start Again, by the way? An excellent take on the post punk scene).

    Second, I get what you're saying and obviously Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious did not form a boy band. However, I really, really hate the narrative Rotten has been able to get away with that the Sex Pistols somehow personified punk, so maybe my bitterness came through a bit too much. That being said, that is incredibly awesome that you were at that show, as I have no doubt that they had great energy live. Also, Malcolm McLaren is the only person I actually like who came out of the Sex Pistols, primarily because of his work after the fact on Duck Rock, one of the most underrated records of the 80s. So maybe I tilt towards his narrative because of that.

    I was actually a music critic for about five years (though I mostly wrote about hip hop and electronic music), so this stuff is extremely interesting to me. Despite your disagreement with my points about the Clash and the Sex Pistols, I hope you agree with my overall point that punk's repeated ability to redefine itself (and it's artist's abilities to do the same) make it endlessly fascinating, both as a credible social movement and an authentic music genre.

    I really wish I had enjoyed this movie more, as I expected to love it. Have you seen any of Jarman's other movies? I believe I saw Caravaggio years ago, but don't remember much of it.