LAWRENCE: A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT, by world of hoopla
When Paul Kelly set out to make a film about the mercurial talent that is Lawrence, he was hoping it would take him roughly six months. The idea was to follow the creation of a new record by Lawrence’s current band Go-Kart Mozart.
Instead, the film, ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’ ended up taking eight years to make. The record, meanwhile, still hasn’t seen the light of the day. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with life on Planet Lawrence.
“At one point I was thinking ‘I should be making a film about how hard it is to make this film” says Paul. “The one thing that kept me going was that every July, Michael Hayden from the BFI would ring up and ask if the film was ready to be shown in the London Film Festival. The answer was always ‘no’.”
“I stopped making it altogether about five times, for various reasons, but then I would think, ‘I’ve got the BFI waiting for this’ and I would push on again.”
“So at the start of this year I thought ‘I’m not going to let this continue into another year’ and when Michael Hayden rang with the usual question I said ‘Yes, it will be ready’.
So what made this project so prolonged? Put simply, Kelly was drawn into the orbit of one of the great English eccentrics and it turned into a frustrating, perplexing experience as the margins between art and real life blurred beyond all recognition.
“I would never, ever, make a film like this again, I got too deep into it. When I met Lawrence he was probably at his lowest ebb. He was very down. Denim (Lawrence’s previous band) had finished, no-one was taking any interest in Go-Kart Mozart, he was existing off benefits. He still is I guess.”
“I was becoming his carer at times, I helped him find flats when he was made homeless and I would often think ‘I’m not even in a position to make this, there’s a third person that should be filming this.’ I was too close, I was looking after him at times.”
I guess the experience
shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise based on Lawrence’s past track
It’s true that the eminently quotable leader of Felt has been placed on a pedestal by fans who have gone on to have far more successful careers in music than their idol.
Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, Bobby Gillespie and Saint Etienne were all touched by the magic of Felt. Even Mark E Smith confessed that he rated the band and invited them on tour with The Fall. “Better than all those other Velvet Underground copyists,” he conceded.
Despite this, Felt never made a real commercial breakthrough. Primitive Painters, their elegant single that featured the Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser, is probably their best known track.
Lawrence though, was always good for a quote and his fastidious nature, obsession with his hair and appearance and the fact that he refused to eat vegetables or let anyone use his toilet meant that he came across in print as an eccentric Brummie combination of Lou Reed and Kenneth Williams.
My favourite Lawrence story is that he felt let down by the Glastonbury festival because he thought all the pop stars that appeared would be put up in cottages on the site !
Paul Kelly had been aware of Lawrence for a long time. Kelly was the guitarist in East Village, another much loved guitar band with a retro feel that couldn’t break through to commercial success.
“At one stage
our label mates (on Heavenly Records) were St Etienne, Flowered Up and Manic
Street Preachers who were all on the up. We were getting £500 a gig, which
I thought was a lot, but they suddenly all took off and we….didn’t !”
Paul’s brother Martin was also in East Village and when the band folded he went on to run Heavenly with Jeff Barrett. Paul, who also took photographs and directed promos, began to find a new niche for himself and when Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley got the opportunity to make a film about London that became ‘Finisterre’ Paul was an obvious choice to get involved.
He co-directed the film with Kieran Evans and it was on this project that he bumped into Lawrence again when the singer recorded his recollections of moving to London for the first time.
“I just thought ‘this guy is really interesting, his mannerisms, the way he sees the world’ and he was just about to start work on a new album and I thought, ‘I’ll follow the progress of all that.’ In some ways you could just point a camera at Lawrence and you would get a film but, as I found, it’s not as simple as that.”
From the beginning Paul and Lawrence agreed they didn’t want to make a traditional ‘rock-doc’ with a dreary combination of talking heads and archive. Two major influences on the style Paul was going for were Marvin Gaye’s exile-in-Belgium film ‘Transit in Ostend’ and a documentary about Gene Vincent visiting the UK in the very late sixties ‘The Rock and Roll Singer’
“Whenever you see a chronological ‘rock-doc’ with a clip from one of those documentaries you always think ‘I want to watch that film!” says Paul.
Another plan was
to roughly copy the structure of Jean Luc Godard’s 1968 Rolling Stones documentary
‘Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One)’ and the device of watching a song (or
in this case album) develop from the ground up.
“Lawrence has got a great way of scuppering your plans. It was impossible to structure it because every time I would do set something up he just wouldn’t turn up. Also the record was taking forever. He would say ‘oh we did the bass the other day’ and I’d say ‘what !!’ I need to know these things.”
“The thing about Lawrence is that he can be the most frustrating person in the world but he has this amazing charm too. So, he can have let you down really badly and have failed to turn up for something that cost a lot of money to set up, like a shoot, and he’ll ring up and you’ll find yourself forgiving him.”
“He’s openly selfish, he’ll say ‘I’ll only talk to someone if I think I can get something out of him’ and, if it was anyone else, they wouldn’t have any friends or allies but he also has an incredible warmth.”
The many faces of Lawrence are all given a chance to show themselves in the film. It has to be said though, that viewers who haven’t followed his career since Felt will be shocked by the change in his appearance. Wearing clothes that would be described as ‘vintage’ if a man a few decades younger were wearing them, and an ever present baseball cap, it’s clear the years haven’t been kind to him.
“Stuart Murdoch saw the film in Glasgow and he was a big fan of Felt and he found it quite distressing. Physically, Lawrence is in a terrible state. He once came to me and said: ‘My doctor says I’ve got the blood of a 20 year old’ and I said ‘Yeah, in the body of someone a hundred years old.’
“He hasn’t looked after himself at all. He’s so obsessive about his music, his possessions, his art, his books, it’s been at the expense of his own physical wellbeing. He’s been heavily into drugs, I think that really kicked in when Denim started to fail, I think he went into a downward spiral.”
There’s a very
funny scene in the film where Lawrence is persuaded by a friend to seek out
a replacement for his battered baseball cap. As he critiques the options presented
to him, it proves beyond any doubt that Lawrence’s deadpan wit is still intact.
“Strangely, he is still very obsessed with his appearance,” says Paul, “He’s….he’s very clean. He’s a very clean man, that sounds weird doesn’t it ? (laughs) He doesn’t eat well though, I mean, apart from a few handfuls of boiled rice, I’ve never really seen him eat much at all.”
As the film follows Lawrence’s quest to make his record, as well as giving an insight into his everyday existence, the director manages to avoid making the whole situation appear tragic. In fact, thanks to the keen intelligence of the documentary’s star, it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny a lot of the time.
One memorable sequence sees Lawrence reluctantly donning a full white boiler suit and, armed with a roller, making a half-hearted attempt at painting his new flat. We hear him wondering whether Bryan Ferry or Lou Reed have ever had to decorate their own homes.
“I wanted to celebrate him and his very unusual world view,” says Paul. “I didn’t want to mock him or make him a figure of fun, that was very important. I did want to capture the humour in his situation though, he can be very funny.”
The narrative that emerges from the eight years of filming is the struggles of a man who will not compromise on his vision, facing whatever suffering or humiliation that comes as a result.
“There’s two ways of looking at Lawrence, either he’s a delusional figure or a true artist and I see him as the latter. He will turn down opportunities that others wouldn’t. He was offered the chance, by a high-profile group, to write the lyrics for a bunch of songs. It could have been really lucrative. He sat down with me and said ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t work for other people’. I said, ‘Lawrence you don’t even have to use your own name you can do it under someone else’s name,’ but he wouldn’t do it.”
“Now, on one hand, that could be seen as a very foolish thing to do but I do think he refused on the basis of his artistic principles. That takes some guts.”
“There’s something here that I struggle with though, and it’s whether he is afraid of success. He does seem to scupper it whenever the possibility comes along. I wonder if he does like the idea of being a cult figure.”
And the theme of
his film has left the director with more to think about than just the time and
effort that it took to make. This, after all, was a project he undertook single-handedly
and without any funding.
“It’s funny, someone who saw the film said ‘this is actually a film about you isn’t it Paul? It’s reflecting a lot of the things in your life. I thought ‘hang on a minute, you mean I’m delusional or maybe you mean I’m a true artist that won’t compromise?’.
If it’s the latter, I actually take that as a great compliment, I think you should be reflected in your film.”
“My girlfriend is incredibly supportive. We live in a tower block in Islington and we don’t have a lot of money but she’s always encouraging. I’ve got a fifteen year old daughter and she says ‘Dad, why don’t you make films that people want to watch?’ (laughs)
“The last shot in the film is this long pull out, shot from our flat of Lawrence on the balcony of a tower block opposite where he lives. It pulls back to reveal a tiny figure against this vast city backdrop and the point of it is to say how difficult it is for anyone to get their voice heard among the millions of voices out there. I guess though that shot could easily have been reversed and it would me in a similar predicament, it’s almost ‘who’s watching who?”
‘Lawrence of Belgravia’ is a really special film and a huge credit to a director who has clearly gone well beyond the call of duty to make it happen. There are nationwide screenings in May with a Q and A afterwards with Paul and Lawrence. All the dates are here
taken from http://worldofhoopla.com/2012/05/04/lawrence-a-suitable-case-for-treatment/