Tag Archives: documentary

Screening announcement: Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest @ Clapham Picturehouse, Thursday 27 Sep, 20:30

Hot on the heels of our last event – a packed screening of Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing, we’re absolutely delighted to announce a rare screening of Michael Rapaport’s brilliant documentary about the hip-hop legends. The time and place? 20:30 on Thursday 27 September at south London’s lovely Clapham Picturehouse.

Best known for songs like “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?”, and classic albums like “Midnight Marauders” and “The Low-End Theory”, the influential Queens-based group, alongside the likes of De La Soul, pioneered a jazzier, sunnier sound at a time when Gangsta rap was in the ascendancy. Their 1998 break-up shocked the industry, and this film picks up with Tribe in 2008, when they reunited to perform sold-out concerts across the country. It wasn’t all plain sailing…

This all-access film focuses on the inner workings, personal relationships and behind the scenes drama that defines the band. No stone is left unturned, with a host of musical legends (including Kanye West, Common and Mos Def) on hand to pay tribute. You won’t need to be a die-hard hip-hop head to enjoy this revealing, funny and finally very moving film. And don’t just take my word for it; the film currently holds a 91% fresh rating on aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

You can, and absolutely should, buy tickets here, and you can bet we’ll be making an event out of it, with drinks and music in the bar, food, and a prize giveaway. Before you scamper off to tell all of your friends, be sure to watch the trailer:

Permanent Plastic Helmet would like to thank the lovely people at Soda Pictures for offering us the opportunity to put this screening on.

Undefeated | review

Winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated tells the story of a long-suffering volunteer coach who shepherds a team of underperforming high-school football players in a depressed North Memphis suburb through a rough, but ultimately rewarding season.

The coach in question is doughy, grizzled and inspirational family man and entrepeneur Bill Courtney. The team are Manassas, comprised entirely of black kids from largely dispossessed backgrounds. Of the kids, Lindsay and Martin pick three contrasting figures upon which to focus; gentle giant OC, hair-trigger thug Chavis, and sensitive Montrail.

While Courtney comes across as a thoroughly decent guy (with a touching familial tale of his own to tell), the film loses perspective in its frantic attempts to paint him as a saviour. The inescapable (and troubling) feeling persists that Courtney is being actively constructed as a hero at the expense of full, thorough characterisation of his students. This is never more keenly felt than in the egregious moment where he grandly pays a distressed Montrail a visit, and seems to be all but winking at the camera. Later he even tweaks Montrail’s nose. Call me a cynical bastard, but I felt my cringe reflex go into overdrive on more than one occasion; the tang of inauthenticity swilled heavy in my nostrils.

Sadly, Undefeated is never especially gripping because, narrative-wise, it’s all so grimly predictable. Despite an ostensibly un-forecastable real-life setting, there’s a curious anti-tension at work which is a corollary of the directors’ own steadfast subscription to time-honoured generic cliches (conflict to resolution, ignorance to learning, earnest aphorisms about being the best you can be etc…). The recent announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs will serve as a producer on a Hollywood remake begs the question… why? This is Hollywood stuff already.

Furthermore, while the film is competently shot, only rarely is the bone-crunching intensity of the game really captured. Neither do the filmmakers concede to explain the finer points (or, in fact, any of the points) of the sport, which might help it to connect to a wider audience. Wholly unnecessary subtitles for some students exacerbate the already pretty patronizing tone.

It would take a misanthrope of epic proportions to deny that, on a human level, Undefeated is occasionally moving, and that it may prove inspirational to some viewers. OC, Chavis and Montrail are all clearly interesting characters, and their personalities shine through when they’re not being manipulated by the directors (Chavis in particular is hung out to dry to serve the narrative arc). The dedicated Courtney comes to accept that his own responsibilities as a father cannot co-exist with his time-consuming role of self-appointed father figure to his charges.

Thematically speaking, Undefeated touches on the intrinsic nature of sport to people’s lives, and the inextricable financial links between education and sport that are endemic in the States and anathema to UK audiences. But, if you’ve seen Hoop Dreams (and if you haven’t, why not?), there’s nothing new here. What really sticks is this film’s carefully constructed, and altogether tiresome, drift into “white saviour” narrative territory, as seen in the recent likes of The Blind Side and The Help (which makes it all the more surprising that co-director T.J. Martin is African-American). The black kids’ learning journey is externally imposed and constructed, and the filmmakers’ shy away from any real forensic socio-economic analysis. Undefeated is cliched, watchable and inessential.

Undefeated is in cinemas now.

Nostalgia for the Light | review

While Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light juxtaposes fairly niche interests – astronomy and the Pinochet era – the poetic way he draws parallels between scientific and sociopolitical investigations of the past transcends the particulars. Personal traumas resonate on an epic scale in Guzman’s haunting depiction of the scars of modern Chile.

Forty years ago, Chile’s democracy was struggling with a crippled economy and a politically polarised population. Four decades of strong leftist forces were being challenged, especially because of the Cold War. Under these conditions, hard right General Pinochet staged a successful, military coup against the leftist president Salvador Allende. His regime aggressively and brutally silenced any opposition, imprisoning, torturing, ‘disappearing’ and exiling thousands – including Patricio Guzmán.

When Guzmán was 32, he started his second documentary called The Battle of Chile, filming up until the day of the coup that put Pinochet in power. On that day, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks. Then, threatened with execution, he fled to Europe with his film stock. Since that time, he has made many documentaries about Chilean concerns, and it is fitting that – now in his 70s – he reflects upon Chile’s history with a pained nostalgia.

The film is dominated by gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Atacama desert and the glittering sky above it. Guzmán shows us how both environments grant us access to evidence of the past, whether through the changing composition of star systems or through preserved artefacts shallowly buried in shifting sands. He also captures how time is pre-modern in these environments, and the present feels like a fallacy. Even the sunlight we see and feel takes eight minutes to travel to us. He makes it clear that the silence of the desert and of space doesn’t necessarily indicate calm – both are pregnant with secrets and history that lead to endless questions.

To try and answer these questions, Guzmán interweaves varied testimonials from Chileans with these images of nature, effectively layered to ruminate upon how we try to find inner peace by remembering and trying to understand our past. He is fascinated by Chile’s paradoxical predisposition to examine the ancient past through the sky and the desert, while seeming to have a collective amnesia about the recent past. His most heartbreaking interviews are with women who have been tirelessly searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones for nearly three decades. Their struggles embody the film’s title – they, representative of many Chileans, long for a time when they did not feel like they live restlessly in the dark, isolated in their search for answers.

But ultimately, by focusing on this intersection of history and science, Guzmán’s unique documentary tries to reassure us by emphasising the invisible interconnectedness of everything. It serves as a reminder that we’re part of a massive cycle, made of stardust, and generation after generation will continue to pursue an understanding of it all.

Nostalgia for the Light is in cinemas now. Follow contributor Cathy Landicho on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #10 – Marwencol (2010, dir. Jeff Malmberg)

“Everyone wants an alter ego who can do stuff they can’t.” So speaks Mark Hogancamp. He has a powerful incentive to focus on the contents of a parallel existence. Ten years before Jeff Malmberg’s cameras found him, he, aged 38, had every memory beaten out of his head after five men pounced on him outside a bar. He spent nine days in a coma, then forty in hospital relearning how to walk and talk from scratch. Of his life until that point, “only single frames” were left.

So far, so tragic but let’s return to that point about alter egos. When the Medicaid ran out, Mark, a talented artist before the attack, developed his own form of therapy. He built a miniature World War II-era Belgian town, which he christened by combining the first syllables of his name with the first syllables of two beloved female names (Mark + Wendy + Colleen = Marwencol). He used anything he could get his skilled hands on to furnish the town with all plausible conveniences, and a few implausible ones. A time machine is made from an eviscerated VCR player, its control panel is a Nokia phone cover and the seat a phone holder. The whole effect is a masterpiece of industry and attention-to-detail. Imagine a tiny Borrowers-style universe that doubles as a constant visual reminder of Mark’s need to hide in fantasy.

If the infrastructure of Marwencol is one source of awe then its inhabitants are another. The town is populated by dolls, each possessing a well-developed character and backstory. Some are fictionalised versions of the people he knows while others are fantastical creations. Storylines are devised and photographed and, once again, provide a mirror to his mood. Mark’s yearnings for female companionship materialise in weddings and love triangles while violent fights take place when Mark is angry about what happened to him.

Malmberg got ninety percent of his film’s quality by stumbling upon Mark Hogancamp. He adds the extra ten percent by whole-heartedly embracing the logic that governs Mark’s two-pronged reality. The narrative is broken into sub-titled chapters, each introduced by a doll propping up a cue card. Malmberg himself ends up with a doll incarnation running about in Marwencol. This is an honour reserved for those who have earned Mark’s trust.

Although mainly a showcase for Mark’s story, told through his robotic monotone and the scanned-in photo narratives that provide a timeline for Marwencol, Malmberg successfully provides the social context to Mark’s strange life through a cross-section of revealing interviews. Supportive friends and family talk of Marwencol almost as seriously as Mark does, while a doctor gives the blunt lowdown on the physical and mental damage he has suffered.

What is truly compulsive about this documentary is its timing. At ten years since the trauma and the consequent creation of Marwencol, Mark is ready to challenge the confines of his bubble universe. The film has progressed incrementally to this narrative pivot reflecting Mark’s slow return from the fringes of life. At the cusp of a big personal leap, he is self-aware and conflicted. “I don’t want to get hurt, mentally or emotionally or physically ever again”, he says. It’s a sentiment people frequently voice, but most have never had their worst fears come true in such violence.

Having started the film by detailing the attack in all its senseless brutality, Malmberg ensures that when opportunity comes knocking for Mark, you’ve never wanted anything to work out so badly. The temptation to print a T-shirt with his face and the words, “Go on, my son” written underneath is immense.

By leading the audience gently to this point and by clearly illustrating Marwencol as a work of creative genius and refuge from the storms and uncertainties of real people, Marwencol does an incredible thing. It shows mental illness as a logical response to terrible events. But more than that, it provides a rounded character study of an extraordinary man, it shows how kindness can mean colluding in someone’s fantasy world, and it shows how (although in one respect trauma never disappears) a traumatised person can develop around this bullet in their brain.

In an industry saturated by films that claim to be about issues they merely name-check, Marwencol is an unmissable work of documentary and humanity. I defy anyone to watch it and not come away feeling deepened, humbled and hopeful in a way too profound to fully describe.

Marwencol is now available on Netflix. Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @sopharsogood.

Far from an animated Wikipedia page: a few thoughts on Wim Wenders’ Pina 3D

Yesterday I went to see Wim Wenders’ Pina in 3D at the Barbican Centre. I’d bought tickets for my wife and I, because she’d missed it on its original theatrical run and I knew that she’d been very keen to catch it. For my part, though always a fan of Wenders (especially Paris, Texas), I’d been rather put off by the dance/choreography subject matter, and it had been way down my priority list.

So how glad was I that I caught it? As it happens, very.

For a start, the choreography combined with Wenders’ eye for a shot and subtle use of 3D was frequently astonishing in its daring, complexity and execution, with the dancers’ lithe bodies pretty much works of art in themselves. In mixing up outdoor and indoor sequences, rehearsals and live performances, Wenders broadened the scope of the material, and in doing so underscored the universality of the key themes of the dance; love, longing, loss, sadness. I enjoyed some of the dance sequences more than others, but they were all compelling in some way or another, and augmented by Wenders’ constantly prowling camera and sweeping, creeping dolly shots.

However, what I loved most about the film was its clear and robust dedication to celebrating the life of the late Pina Bausch almost solely through representations of her work. As a documentary, it eschewed excavation and information for action. In short, it understood what its subject was about; her essence. If you want to know where Pina was born, how she died etc…, then bloody well go and Google her, Wenders seemed to be saying. Testimony about Pina was limited to a series of simple, moving shots of members of her company overlaid by a few lines of their internal monologue; it’s like we were being gently, movingly ushered into their private thoughts.

By means of comparison, Kevin McDonald’s Marley – released earlier this year – seemed almost like an animated Wikipedia page in its fraught, expansive attempts to collect testimony on the man and map out his life. In the end, by almost wholly ignoring the inspiration for, and creation of, his music (surely his driving force), Marley ended up missing that sweet spot where information becomes evocation, and was actually closer in tone to Carol Morley’s elusive doc Dreams of a Life, about a lady who lay dead, unnoticed, for three years, than Wenders’ joyous memento to the creative fire of one inspirational woman.

Overall, Pina represented not just a particularly entertaining couple of hours in the cinema and a fascinating way of approaching documentary filmmaking, but also served as a timely little reminder to me that it’s always good to keep one’s horizons broad because – put simply – a good film is a good film whatever the subject matter.

Pina is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sing Your Song

African-American actor, singer, dancer and activist Harry Belafonte – now 85 years of age – makes a fascinating subject in an expansive documentary which functions for much of its running time as a vibrant slice of American civil rights history.

With a gruff Belafonte also narrating, it comes as no surprise to find that Sing Your Song is hardly a critical piece, and at times tantamount to auto-hagiography. However, such an indulgence can be forgiven when the subject has lived an extraordinary life and has so many amazing stories, freighted with socio-political significance, to tell.

Though his artistic endeavours are paid due attention in the film’s early scene-setting passages, Sing Your Song’s focus is placed firmly on Belafonte the activist. Inspired by the trailblazing black American singer Paul Robeson, Belafonte developed a political consciousness at an early age which further developed when he became the target of racism in the American south, and encountered discrimination as an artist.

Throughout the 1960s, his influential presence is a constant in a tumultuous era which witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam war and a rapidly changing media landscape.

Distinguished by some exceptional archive footage (both of Belafonte’s performances and of the American Civil Rights movement), propulsive editing and a willingness to investigate the difficulties that activism poses to a healthy family life, Sing Your Song is also notable for its exploration of the putative intersection between celebrity and activism.

We now live in age in which it’s easy to be cynical about celebrity engagement with political causes, but it’s hugely impressive and bracingly refreshing to see Belafonte’s influence on John F. Kennedy, and his closeness with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Furthermore, it’s quite something to see a celebrity advocate coterie comprised of the likes of Belafonte, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston.

This always watchable film falters toward the end in its eagerness to document the vast, globe-spanning canvas of Belafonte’s activism at the expense of really drilling down into what makes its inspirational subject tick. The sections devoted to the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s are powerful, detailed and pointed, but as Belafonte travels to Iraq, South Africa, Germany, and even modern-day L.A., it all starts to feel a bit like a vague, extended infomercial with Belafonte in the role of activist Zelig.

Belafonte is heard in a recent conference to stress the importance of “defining the agenda”. Though it’s never a chore to spend time in the company of this one-off figure – and all of this is clearly being done to highlight Belafonte’s worthy causes – similar advice might have been heeded by the filmmakers.

This review originally appeared on Little White Lies online. Sing Your Song is in cinemas now.

The Price of Kings – Yasser Arafat

2011 was the year of the documentary: from Formula 1 to an albino crocodile, or a small pile of abandoned Christmas presents in a North London flat, films experimented with the documentary format, combining contemporary footage with the powerful force of the archive, or blending the real and the constructed into a heady mix. These were films that posed unexpected challenges to the big-budgeted, steroid-spun mainstream.

The attempts to creatively reconstruct – even resurrect – people and times past, openly playing with the fluid and imaginative lens of history and memory linked Carol Morley’s startling history of contemporary isolation (Dreams Of A Life) to Clio Barnard’s brilliantly contentious fusion of truth and fiction in a Bradford estate (The Arbor). Werner Herzog’s reclamation of 3D as a means to deliver us to ancient history shared something (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams) of Asif Kapadia’s celebration of low-grade 90s TV footage (Senna) – a celebration of the new in the old, and the old in the new.

The documentary films of the past year clearly illustrate that in film, the truth benefits from this creative, malleable approach to history. For after all, as legendary Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson said, the documentary is ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

In an astoundingly ambitious new series of 12 feature-length documentaries titled The Price of Kings, Spirit Level films have brought this creative counterpoint – between historical ‘truth’ and memory – into a sharp political focus. Melding archival footage with interviews with some of the most prominent (and controversial) politicians and activists alive, the series delves into the careers of the most divisive characters of recent political history, starting with late Palestinian leader and Nobel prize winner Yasser Arafat.

At the UK premiere a moving introduction from his wife, Suha Arafat, was followed by an impassioned plea from the Palestinian ambassador who perfectly summed up the protracted struggle that the film was to address; he said – ‘we are stuck between the historical imperative and the political impossible’. And how does a documentary film deal with this impossibility? In The Price of Kings, it is achieved through an imaginative, malleable, deeply personal treatment of history.

Through a mixture of interviews and archival footage of Arafat’s political career, the film provides an informative entry into the complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the painfully long process of Palestinian state building. The format of the film, though well worn (save perhaps for the use of Errol Morris’ ‘interrotron’ method – where a combination of a camera and an autocue screen gives the impression that the interviewee is talking with the audience, face to face), transcends the comforts of the documentary form through bravely maintaining a difference in opinion voiced in its interviewees, tempered by archival footage of Arafat’s life. Whether the images confirmed or contradicted the words heard, Arafat’s history is treated with a sensitive, constructive confusion, perhaps even historical playfulness, a rarity in such a contentious history, as that of Palestine.

The Price of Kings gently presents its audience with a spectrum of opinion and belief; treating both the deeply emotional and impassioned as equally relevant and truthful as starkly historical ‘fact’. The moving testimonies of those who believed in Arafat’s pragmatic methods, and who credit him completely for putting Palestine back onto the map – in whatever husk of its former self – is supported brilliantly by the archive. A plump-lipped and wide-eyed Arafat as a young freedom fighter slowly transforms into an elder statesman, exhausted by violence, negotiation, and responsibility.

With 12 more films to go, the series is a bold counter-production to the popular history programmes that deal with conflict either sensationally, or with a dry nervousness. The next two installments delve into the careers of Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, and Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Costa Rica from 2006-2010.

As a meditation on the trappings of power, and the sacrifices of political responsibility, The Price of Kings series is promising to be complicated, confusing, but necessarily, enjoyably, and powerfully so.

Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance, and writes for the the blog Africa Is A Country, where a version of this article originally appeared. The Price of Kings is available now to rent or stream.

Bill Cunningham New York – a hymn to passionate, singular creativity

Bill Cunningham New York is an amazing documentary about the eponymous 82-year-old photographer who scoots around the Big Apple (do we still call it that?) on a bicycle and snaps shots of the local scenesters for the New York Times’ style pages, where he has worked for for years and years and years. I loved it. Here are some reasons why:

  • Bill is the perfect subject. He’s warm, funny, forthcoming about his art, and far from camera shy. Crucially, however, he’s also enigmatic and unknowable; even those closest to him don’t really know the full picture. This appealingly pervasive sense of mystery drives the film forwards.
  • Unlike the harrowingly one-dimensional A Man’s Story (a serious hack-job about menswear designer Ozwald Boateng, reviewed here), BCNY director Richard Press mixes up his interviews to create a satisfying, rounded portrait of the man. Cunningham is interviewed on his own, at work and among friends, while others (including such big hitters as Vogue editor Anna Wintour) are interviewed about him.
  • The film features one outrageously attired lady named Edith Sherman who lives down the hall from Bill in their Carnegie Studio residency (which is under threat from developers) who, at 96 years of age, is 14 years older than the man himself! I liked her.
  • In a creative culture increasingly defined by speed and instant gratification, Bill is a true, committed, long-haul artist. He’s a genuine observer of trends, and not just fashion, but New York life as a whole. He’s pernickety, a perfectionist, and is possessed of a strong ethos and egalitarian streak which shines through and makes you root for him even more.
  • The film’s form matches its content perfectly. Press’ deployment of jazzy music, rich colour and lively editing is fully in keeping with the sprightly nature and constant movement of his inspirational subject.
  • In some of the archive footage (mostly from the 1980s, used sparingly), Bill looks a little like David Byrne, another legendarily creative New Yorker. This, in turn, made me think of my favourite Talking Heads’ song ‘Found A Job’, which is all about a frustrated couple who jack in their respective jobs and decide to make a TV show, which becomes a roaring success and helps to revive their relationship. In a circuitous way, this took me back to Bill, whose passion for work is palpable; for him, it’s not a chore, it’s his life. That’s uplifting.
  • It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.
  • Bill just comes across like a lovely, lovely guy and you want to spend even more time in his company than the film’s slim 84 minutes.
  • It’s not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.

Go and see this film. It’s in cinemas now, via the ever impressive Dogwoof. Here’s the trailer:

Sound It Out: A Eulogy for the Record Store

Contributor Michael Mand takes a wistful look at Jeanie Finlay’s music shop doc Sound It Out.

During my recent review of Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy Goon, I reflected on my youth in North East England and suggested that the local ice rink provided the city’s youth-cultural centrepiece. I was of course referring to those healthy beings who value such vulgar activities as ‘fun’ & the company of others; for the rest of us, there was Volume Records.

For the benefit of younger readers: in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, music was largely available in three formats – vinyl, cassette and the new technology of compact disc – but could be bought from a range of outlets. There were the obvious chain stores (Durham had not one, but two branches of Our Price), non-specialist shops such as Woolworth’s and, in my case, the local newsagent (which sold ex-jukebox singles at 50p a pop); meanwhile, for those who dared enter, there were independent record shops.

Volume was one of these shops; a small, dark and musty space, secreted down a narrow street and staffed by the largest array of cultural snobs north of the Royal Opera House. To enter was to brave the judgement of older, cooler men and confront a bewildering array of records, posters and flyers, a cacophony of unfamiliar noise and the stench of both ageing cardboard and bizarrely attired individuals. Friends of mine who worked there attest to the absurdly competitive and superior owner – think Comic Book Guy with a Wearside accent.*

Shane: “There’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”

“Barry, Dick and I have decided you can’t be a serious person if you own less than 500 records…”

Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or watched Stephen Frears’ excellent film adaptation will be familiar with the type personified by Rob, who represents all of us downtrodden by the male compulsion to own, to collect, to hoard. There’s an anthropological study to be made of this phenomenon but, for now, Hornby must do, such is his bull’s-eye depiction of these once-hipsters trapped by their obsessions (Rob), geeky music-librarians struggling to socialise outside of their artificial, vinyl environment (Dick) and aggressive record-snobs who can only assess themselves (or others) via a personally approved musical pantheon (Barry).

This is a world in which everything and anything can be safely compartmentalised in All-Time Top Five lists, in-jokes and an obsession with obscure fact and arbitrary opinion. Jack Black’s ostensibly OTT performance will seem entirely natural to anyone who has encountered that type in a shadowy record shop or stained-carpet ROCK pub. The stereotype calcified in Hornby’s book – and its predecessor, the football crazy’s crazy football bible, Fever Pitch – along with the likes of Loaded magazine, reduced us chaps to the status of one-track minded monoliths in the 1990s. Despite this, I believe that there is an emotional richness to the male collector; a wish to surround himself with something meaningful, beautiful and to possess something he might one day leave behind.

“They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference…”

All of which makes it all the stranger that the melancholy yet uplifting documentary Sound It Out (recently released on DVD) should be so sympathetically directed by a lady, specifically Jeanie Finlay. Her film heads twenty miles south of Durham City, to run-down Stockton-upon-Tees, and focuses upon the only remaining independent record store in the town, the eponymous Sound It Out. The shop is run by a real-life ‘Rob’, Tom Butchart, who’s making vinyl’s last stand in an obscure part of the north. This is not a trendy London outlet, not a Rough Trade, or any Portobello Road boutique; the shop is a refuge and supplier to a range of troubled local souls, who look to Tom as a kind of guru.

Finlay is an unobtrusive presence, documenting the irregular comings and goings of the local refugees. There’s a formerly suicidal fan of anything subtitled ‘metal’ who credits the music he finds in Rob’s shop as his salvation;  a pair of local hip hop wannabes, hoping that music might lift them out of the dead end of recession-hit Britain; a now successful London-based female singer-songwriter, back to her hometown for a shop-based show. There’s even room for the random characters from the pub opposite the shop, who occasionally appear to slur questions about songs they have cocked an ear at on the boozer juke.  Each one is treated with complete, interested and non-patronising respect, and sometimes followed home by Finlay to their (usually) celibate flats, in order to further discuss this music thing.

Shane is my favourite; a balding, middle-aged, denim-jacketed yet eloquent oddball who encapsulates the power of the music that we addicts rely on like seatbelts. Shane has seen Status Quo live between 450 and 500 times, yet claims he is “not fanatical” (“there’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”); he lives alone and has never washed his patch-ridden Quo jacket. Growing up with a physical disability, Shane discovered what those of us with a social disability also identified at some point in our teens: music enables a form of internal, yet real conversation that can’t possibly be matched in the local park or ice rink. Finlay deftly reveals that, in his record collection, Shane has found the comfort he might otherwise have sought in the enriching career or relationship he’s been wrongly denied. As with the depressed metal fan, these are Morrissey’s literal “songs that saved your life”.

Pop to Sound It Out and that Jesus Jones badge could be yours

“I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter…”

The near-anachronistic milieu evinced by Sound It Out got me thinking about how we consume music today. In my youth, the modern capacity to access music would have seemed a crazy sci-fi dream. Reduced to scouting for music in Volume-type stores or record fairs (my original vinyl copy of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder cost me £4.50 from a church charity sale in Crewe), or to taping the Top Forty from a crackling Radio One, the idea that virtually every record ever made could be available at one’s fingertips would have appeared magical. However, even as I take advantage of technology in consuming music, I can’t help but feel that this ease of access in some ways devalues the music itself. MP3 players have traduced the role of the album –  a cohesive whole which rewarded time spent with it – in favour of single tracks, shuffles and the downloading/deleting of unloved digital files. Gone also is the artwork, the craving for liner notes – for information. I own a much loved picture book which details in glorious colour every sleeve of every record released on the Factory label; such tactile pleasures don’t exist with the iPod.

Of course, the ability to download music, or find thousands of tracks on Spotify or YouTube, has wonderful benefits, opening up a whole world of sound from across the decades. However, this sea change in the way we consume music is sounding a death knell for the record collector’s Mecca: shops like Sound it Out.

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music…?”

Tom seems more balanced and far happier than High Fidelity’s Rob, but is still a fanatic at heart . It’s easy to sense the desolation that will be felt if and when his one man crawl against the tide comes to an end; at one point, Tom explains that for him, records are “all about emotions & memories”. In many ways, Sound It Out also holds just these things for so many of his dwindling disciples.

As a piece of documentary film, Sound It Out has much in common with the music it celebrates. It is engrossing and heart warming, but it is also deeply sad and reveals many truths about the present in which we live which far transcend the obscure world of the independent record shop it enthusiastically profiles. Tom’s assistant, previously made redundant by a mainstream record outlet, expresses his fear that he may soon be out of a job again, and suddenly a film about a subset of people takes on a wider resonance, reflecting the changing times and providing an account of the decay of towns like Stockton, as businesses collapse and shops stand empty or are changed into bargain outlets.

On a recent return visit to Durham, I passed the narrow side street where Volume Records used to be. There, in its place, now hides a discount electrical goods store. In the ancient market place, even the likes of Our Price and Woolworths are now a Haagen Dazs ice cream outlet and a Tesco supermarket, standing incongruously amid the cobblestones. Around the statue teenagers, as ever, gather in groups, MP3 players in their pockets, headphones covering their ears.

Sound It Out is out now on DVD, released by Dogwoof. Extras include: filmmaker and cast interviews, Jeanie Finlay’s first short documentary film Love Takes and another music themed short docu by Tim Mattia – The Chapman Family is not a Cult. Also included are additional music videos and trailers.

*Though, to be fair, Volume’s Führer would be kind enough to gift certain of us outdated window displays, leading to the decoration of our sixth form common room with an entire wall of Teenage Fanclub album covers, a life size cardboard cut-out of the members of James and large posters hyping records by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and Cypress Hill.