Bodysong; The MovieDirector:
true Radiohead fan makes a lot of compromises. Its all too easy to dismiss their output, Kid A and beyond, as meaningless soundscaping – blatant Thomfoolery. In the same way, the suggestion that their pre-experimental records were in some way invalid because their indie-boy image clashed with their Oxford educations (and their often pretentious appearance in interviews), has to be understood but ultimately dismissed.
But with Radiohead there are two attributes vital to their die-hard fans, without which they could possibly be regarded as just another band. Firstly, their ability to source out the most progressive music ever made and, Greenwood himself said, “imitate” it, and secondly; the band’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for collaborating with the world’s figureheads of innovation. Without these the band would seem stark, skeletal - ordinary even - and would undoubtedly halve the record collection of any self-respecting Radiohead-head.
It is the latest collaboration of the band’s understated, wiry and meticulously unkempt powerhouse, Jonny Greenwood that concerns us here. Working with British film director Simon Pumell, Greenwood has composed the soundtrack for the new documentary Bodysong – a compilation of film clips from the last 100 years, documenting “every aspect of human life”.
All of the members of Radiohead have famously refused to write music for filmmakers until now. So, as a self-confessed Radiohead fanatic I wondered, in the midst of Yorke’s new image as role model of college Debating Societies nationwide, will Greenwood now lay claim to the crown as the band’s most intriguing and accomplished member (as we kind of knew already)? Is this an art-project/side-project too far, and most importantly, is the new Bodysong DVD worth parting with £20 of your hard-earned cash?
The film’s soundtrack (released on CD in October last year) was met with mixed reviews. Greenwood grapples with the temptation of prog cacophony – and loses at times when, had this been a Radiohead record, his bandmates would have surely kept him in check. Opener “Moon Trills” brings with it strings that suggest uncertainty, a distant image gradually be coming clearer. Digital technology clicks and beeps, analogue synths make unhealthy noises and funereal piano chords guide us through.
“Moon Mall” follows along much the same lines but then loses its way, pales into insignificance, disappears up its own arse. Bodysong is then only sporadically interesting – with “Clockwork Tin Soldiers” sounding like exactly that, and musical ideas recurring throughout. The freeform jazz of “Splitter” and “Milky Drops From Heaven” is superb, powerful, and sounds much like Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” - as if the horn players were trapped in a lift together.
I knew already that this being a soundtrack (and being a Radiohead-affiliated release) would not be about songs, but sounds. Unfortunately, the experimental nature of the record means that many of Greenwood’s ideas lack direction. The tribal rhythms of “Convergence” and “Nudnik Headache” are at best worthwhile in a beard-stroking, weed-smoking sort of way, at worst, Jonny Greenwood is trying to tell us he’s a serious musician, man - and wants to be treated as such.
The film’s uncut footage of childbirth, pornography and death often made for uncomfortable viewing. The innocence of children playing drifted seamlessly – worryingly - with sinister propaganda footage of a German child dressed as a soldier and waving the Nazi flag. Similarly, the joy of freed prisoners of war cut with the horrific injuries caused by Napalm in Vietnam meant that the light in which humans are portrayed changes incessantly.
Putting the music into this sort of context was always going to make more sense. Greenwood’s unpredictability, recurring riffs and free-jazz freakouts do work excellently here, complimenting the film’s imagery at all times. But it is Simon Pumell’s work that steals the show, leading us to the questions of human existence that Radiohead fanatics, myself included, are just the right age to begin pondering.
Are we, as humans, evil? Sometimes. Are we, as beings conscious of the camera’s omnipresence, good? Less often. Bodysong doesn’t attempt to answer the questions for us. On the contrary, Pumell avoids the use of dialogue until the final minutes, concluding that conversation is the way the human race can better itself ready for reassessment in another 100 years.
That is, of course, assuming there will be another Simon Pumell ready and waiting to assemble the evidence. And who can say? For Bodysong is hugely ambitious, completely admirable and (dare I say it?) important viewing.
And as for Jonny Greenwood? It certainly wasn’t a bad effort. But please, for my sake if no one else’s, don’t give up the day job.
Bodysong is out now on DVD.
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-03-18