A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Hear the term “Britpop,” and the usual musical suspects come to mind: Blur, Oasis, Suede, and the like. Less obvious is the movement’s cinematic corollary, explored in Matt Glasby’s Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting to This is England (Intellect, 2019). Much like the music with which it is closely associated, these films exhibit energetic pacing and style to spare, not to mention a healthy dose of snark. Glasby’s prose fittingly conveys a similar attitude. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he explains how “In the mid-1990s, something strange happened to British cinema. People actually started to watch it” (Glasby 4).
After name-checking some important antecedents (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964; Alfie, 1966; Quadrophenia, 1979), Glasby traces the origin of this cinematic renaissance to the unlikeliest of places: Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Though it’s about as far from Trainspotting (1996) as one can get, the romantic comedy paved the way for its more experimental successors by embracing its Britishness and not catering specifically to Americans. “Connecting with audiences without sacrificing a film’s unique character,” notes Glasby, “would become one of the key factors in the Britpop cinema boom that followed” (23). It also didn’t hurt that Four Weddings’ critical and financial success helped PolyGram Studios later finance and distribute the best of the era’s output (Glasby 24-25).
Perhaps inevitably, multiple chapters are dedicated to Danny Boyle and his incredible one-two punch of Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting. Plot summaries and mini-reviews aside, the proceedings are enlivened by some fascinating interviews (many completed by Glasby himself) with those who helped put these films on the big screen. For example, David Aukin, a former head at Channel 4, perfectly summarizes Shallow Grave’s mixed (yet stimulating) effect on viewers: “It divided the generations. Young people loved it, people over 40 didn’t get it. You know if you can hit that nerve you’ve got something special” (qtd. in Glasby 30). Such reactions could just as easily apply to Trainspotting, the reigning (and oft-imitated) “poster boy” of Britpop cinema (Glasby 6).
The book’s structure ultimately reveals itself as a sort-of roadmap to how different British populations are represented (with varying degrees of accuracy) in film, be it the working class (The Full Monty, 1997; Billy Elliot, 2000), Ecstasy-generation partiers (Human Traffic, 1999), soccer hooligans (The Football Factory, 2004), or 1980s skinhead gangs (This is England, 2007), among others. An obvious shortcoming, one which Glasby openly acknowledges, is these examples’ emphasis on white male protagonists. This dearth of, say, female representation is no fault of the author (it merely reflects an industry’s tunnel vision during the 1990s), but it’s a problematic facet of the era with which he never quite satisfactorily grapples.
Occasionally, Glasby will step out of this structural framework and focus more on genre fare. One such chapter, standout “The Living Dead,” tackles Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and how, despite its horror-comedy label, it snugly fits into the Britpop cinema oeuvre. He makes a compelling case that Shaun and the likes of Trainspotting share a lot of the same DNA, such as their eclectic musical cues, cheeky in-jokes, stylish rendering of the everyday, incorporation of genuine pathos, and proud Britishness (Glasby 158-161). Regarding the latter characteristic, Wright cites an unexpected inspiration: “To us it was much like going in the direction of a Mike Leigh film with zombies” (qtd. in Glasby 152). In a book replete with excellent interview excerpts, Glasby’s conversations with Simon Pegg and Wright are among the most substantial, as Wright goes beyond “fun fact” type trivia and delves into many of the technical aspects behind his breakout hit.
Some chapters cover multiple, thematically-linked films. “Staying Out for the Summer” could just as easily be entitled “The Year of Selling Out,” since Glasby addresses the unfortunate cash-grab mindset which produced the likes of Spice World (1997) and Shooting Fish (1997); the former now rests comfortably at spot 57 of IMDb’s Bottom Rated Movies, while Glasby derisively refers to the latter as “Danny Boyle-lite” (81). Indeed, it seems another motive for condensing certain sections is the simple fact that many of the films in question just aren’t very good (to put it mildly).
Not all of the author’s decisions to lump certain films together feel as warranted. A central entry, “Caught by the Fuzz,” jumps from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), to Gangster No. 1 (2000), to Sexy Beast (2001), all within a brisk 13 or so pages. While these examples share obvious similarities, Sexy Beast deserves its own section. Oddly enough, I think Glasby would agree with me, since he (rightfully) showers Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut with high praise: “like Trainspotting, Shallow Grave…and Billy Elliot…Sexy Beast is so much more than the sum of its parts” (109). Why, then, is it allotted a few pages when comparatively minor works, such as The Football Factory (2004), get their own chapters?
The answer, it seems, is that Britpop Cinema has a bit of an identity crisis, wavering uncertainly between essay and interview formats. Rarely does a page go by without at least one extended interview excerpt, and some pages contain upwards of five block quotes. I suspect The Football Factory has an entire chapter at least partially because Glasby interviewed writer-director Nick Love (and other key players), whereas films like Sexy Beast do not for lack of similar resources. This is not to say that a text must strictly follow one format or the other; here, though, the disparate parts don’t always quite gel, and I can’t help but wonder what the book would have looked like as a straight interview collection.
But why linger over such qualms when Britpop Cinema is so consistently entertaining and informative, Glasby’s love for these films (even the bad ones) so evident and infectious? What it lacks in cohesion it makes up for with an impressive, compendium-like attention to detail; you could flip to any page and find a factoid or anecdote you probably haven’t seen before. This readability should entice pop culture enthusiasts and cineastes alike.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.