Thursday 21 November 2019

Along came Polly: "A Dog Called Money"

This has been a good decade, in the main, for PJ Harvey: a second Mercury Music Prize for 2011's Let England Shake, an MBE in 2013 (surely unthinkable circa 1992's "Sheela-Na-Gig"), followed by an underlining of her artistic credentials with 2016's The Hope Six Demolition Project. It ends with what has so far been judged a misstep. Directed by the photojournalist Seamus Murphy, A Dog Called Money is two rockumentaries in one, and critics have - perhaps inevitably - been happier with the one that takes place closer to home. On one hand, this is a making-of for Hope Six, conceived as part of an art installation whereby visitors to the basement of Somerset House in London could peer in through one-way glass at a specially constructed recording studio that suggested some 6Music takeover of the Big Brother house. Both that project and Murphy's documenting of it are interesting - at least as interesting as, say, what Godard did with the Rolling Stones in One Plus One - in the way they open up the creative process, the creative space: like the day-pass holders, we're permitted to look in at a dynamic record labels have traditionally kept off-limits, for various reasons. So we get to see Harvey imploring her collaborators to keep the studio tidy, and doling out hugs, and playfully taking the piss out of her fellow musicians, thereby dispelling a previously rather remote and forbidding image. (Much as 1939's Ninotchka was famously sold with the strapline "Garbo laughs!", Dog could deploy "Polly smiles!") All the while, Murphy is recording a quiet miracle: that music this forceful in its themes and sound should have emerged from such artificial conditions.

Having shown Harvey at work, the other, more contentious half of the film forms an attempt to show her working in the mathematical sense - to illustrate how she arrived in this goldfish-bowl studio with the eleven songs that add up to an acclaimed #1 album in the age of Pitchfork and Spotify. As Murphy follows Harvey to battle-scarred Kabul and Kosovo, to Washington's ghettos and the borders of Syria, it becomes clear this half is a mirror image: this time, Harvey is the one doing the peering-in, on underprivileged African-Americans, palsied beggars, frantic refugees, all framed with the same striking compositional eye Murphy has displayed in his still work, and overlaid with Harvey's hushed, poetic narration. This voiceover, which sounds very much like the notes a musician scribbles down while looking out the window of a well-stocked, air-conditioned tour bus, and a little like those breathy staccato mutterings that grace the soundtracks of latter-day Terrence Malick movies, appears to have been a major sticking point for some. Yet at the very least Harvey's looking outwards and wrestling with her position of privilege, and that process yields far fewer regrettable Spinal Tapisms than illuminating pangs of conscience. "I hope we know when to leave," the singer muses over footage of the hollowed-out buildings of Afghanistan, the clear implication being that so many foreign occupiers haven't. If the delivery is breathy and tentative, that may be out of a desire to tread lightly.

Both halves, then, are reflective, caught up with how art gets made from life. We need the overseas scenes to show that, despite what we see in the bowels of Somerset House, Harvey isn't operating in a vacuum, that the words and songs she brought into the booth come from some place real - realness, as ever, being the prize all serious musicians have their eyes set on, for better or worse. A Dog Called Money thus enters into the eternally unresolved debate on the extent to which creatives can have any lasting impact on the wider world, whether they give back in pleasure and enlightenment anything like what they take for inspiration. (One question the film raises: can close proximity to an NME Lifetime Achievement awardwinner really ease the passage of Syrian refugees?) And yes, there's some residual preciousness hanging over proceedings, no matter that it stems from Harvey taking a particular care to outline her vision for this project, to ensure Murphy's images back up the points she was making in the studio with her words. Yet it pays off as cinema in a late sequence where sonic elements we've previously only heard recorded in isolation are merged into the one full song on the soundtrack, while Murphy cuts together shots of people he and Harvey observed on their travels so that they appear to dance in unison. This montage flirts with hands-across-the-waters Koyaanisqatsism, maybe, but thrown in stark relief by fractious footage from a Trump rally (for 2016 was also the year that project came to fruition) it can only appear jubilant, joyous, absolutely an example of what Harvey is trying to achieve with this music. As with that studio, she wants to leave the world in a tidier, better ordered condition than she found it. In messy old 2019, that doesn't seem such an ignoble ambition for a rock singer to have.

A Dog Called Money is playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI UK.

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