The best bits of Julian Temple's bells-and-whistles social history of London feel like they've all been seen before.
Arriving to coincide with the London 2012 games, director Julien Temple’s kaleidoscopic documentary about London has much in common with the Olympic ideal: It’s colourful, comprehensive and inclusive, and leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to mine true excellence.
Unfortunately, it also shares many elements of the modern day Games in that it’s long, grueling, lacks a single uniting focus and it won't be to everyone’s taste, despite – or perhaps because of – it’s attempts to cover every base.
From titfers and trams to Boris bikes and balaclavas, Temple – on something of a roll after his Dr Feelgood biog Oil City Confidential and the masterful BBC TV documentary Requiem For Detroit? – explores the dynamic history of the capital through archive film snippets, newsreels, TV footage and home movies, all set to a backdrop of London-centric anthems.
When combined, they deliver a thumbnail sketch of the capital that aims to balance the hope and the glory with the filth and fury of the last hundred-plus years of London life.
But for some this will be a film that’s hard to take on its own terms. A deluge of recent TV documentaries about the capital, including the BBC’s exemplary London Calling series, have seen researchers hitting the archives hard to illustrate the history of London’s markets, bridges, streets and people.
This makes Temple’s 128-minute take on the same material seem like he’s arrived a little late for the feast and is reduced to picking over the bones of some fairly well chewed meat.
A lot of footage, therefore, seems familiar, and while it would be churlish to blame Temple for that – he can only work with what he’s got – his efforts to breathe new life into the material all too often misfire. Playing punk rock over footage of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street may hardly be a genius stroke, but soundtracking news footage of ponytailed '80s city traders barking figures into phones with the Pet Shop Boys’ 'Opportunities' is frankly unforgivable.
And the half-hearted decision to frame the entire documentary as if the footage is popping up on the monitor-bank of a CCTV control room would have looked a little hacky even in the early-'90s.
But when it works, it works. Especially when the footage is allowed to speak for itself rather than being underlined by spoken literary quotations (none of which, somewhat frustratingly, are annotated) from the likes of Keith Allen, Bill Nighy and Pistol Steve Jones.
Indeed, one of the film’s highlights is a full live rendition of 'Anarchy in the UK' from the Pistols’ fateful Jubilee boat trip up the Thames in 1977. It’s simple, it’s raw and even though it’s little more than a close-up of Johnny Rotten’s sneering, affected bile, it tells us everything about the London of the time that we’ll ever need to know.
And it’s certainly more elegant than the film’s closing section, which is little more than a join-the-dots tour of the Brixton Riots, Poll Tax Riots, G8 Riots and Riot Riots. Pitched against this tumult is Temple’s assertion that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism are GOOD THINGS.
Few would argue that both violence and tolerance have been hallmarks of London’s evolution, but there is much more to a city than banner headlines, and there’s a feeling that Temple has let some of the capital’s smaller stories get nudged to the back pages.
Julian Temple knows his way around a documentary and is on something of a roll.
Moments of archival alchemy occasionally light up Temple’s London, but they’re mostly stranded in a fog of familiarity.
Ultimately there’s not enough invention or verve to set this apart from a competent TV documentary.