Post-Rock Pretension: In A Silent Way Goes In Search Of Talk Talk

A new documentary makes a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to posit Talk Talk as music’s lost artistic geniuses – without any help from the band.

Music documentaries tend to fall into one of two camps. Either the film will be covering a well-known and hugely popular band who have been covered to death, in the hope of possibly adding something – anything – new to the story (or, more cynically, to turn a tidy profit from a large fan base who will buy anything), or it will take a deep-dive into relative obscurity, often driven by the director’s own personal obsession with his or her favourite acts. Sometimes, there is an interesting untold story to be unearthed; sometimes, it just brings overdue attention to an act that has been unfairly overlooked or lost in time. At best, these documentaries are fascinating, vital studies and can appeal even if you have absolutely no interest in the act in question. At worst, they are empty vanity projects, aimed at flattering the ego of both the filmmaker and the subject matter.

I’m not quite sure where In A Silent Way fits in all this, but I suspect that it is closer to the latter than the former. I can’t say that I came away from this film with any new appreciation of the band it covers, or really knowing much more about them beyond some hysterical hyperbole by a handful of talking heads.

In A Silent Way is a study of 1980s popsters Talk Talk, who Belgian filmmaker Gwenaël Breës is a big fan of, and who he tries to convince the viewer over 87 minutes are one of the great bands of all time, pioneering art rock creatives who constantly pushed the musical envelope. he has to try to do this under somewhat difficult circumstances – not only have the band members (other than some spare parts) refused to be interviewed, but they have also refused to allow him to use any of their music in the film. Now, although Breës continually presents this as some sort of unique handicap for the project, as anyone with familiarity with ‘unauthorised biographies’ can attest, this is nothing new – there are countless music documentaries out there that have to make do with library music and talking heads that consist of music journalists and session players. Of course, the difference is that those are small scale documentaries about big-name acts, aimed at people who will be familiar with the music. This documentary has rather more ambition to be something important, and of course, is dealing with a band that even most of us who were in our teens at the height of their success can barely remember. I knew who Talk Talk was, but my memory of what they sounded like was a blur. Was this song in my memory by Talk Talk or  Black or Blancmange or A Flock of Seagulls or by any of the other post-New Romantic indie popsters of the day? Watching the film, I realised that I had barely any recollection of the band – only a vague awareness of anonymous songs, no idea whatsoever what they looked like – despite being entirely in the market for what Breës tells us they were.

And make no mistake, Breës gives the band a build-up that is beyond hyperbole. This, from his opening narration:

“One night, on the radio, I heard music that seemed to come from the depths of the Earth and the human soul, full of silence and nuance, soothing and disturbing, changing like emotions and seasons, a record that nourished my inner worlds, opened my sonic horizons.”

Well. That’s quite a statement. Luckily, while Talk Talk seemed unwilling to help out their (surely) biggest fan with his film, they have placed their music on YouTube. So we can all have our sonic horizons opened.

I am, of course, being touch facetious. Breës is actually talking about later album Spirit of Eden, which is a more arty affair and the sort of thing that might well impress impressionable teens who haven’t heard any actual prog rock. I’ve heard Spirit of Eden and it’s an unbearable dirge, but there’s no accounting for taste, and it’s certainly as far removed from ‘pop’ as you could go.

Of course, there is probably an interesting story to be told in how a band went from It’s My Life (covered by No Doubt if you want verification of its musical value) to minimalist art-rock, but this is not a story that Breës can effectively tell because he has none of the protagonists involved. Hollis appears only in archive European TV interview footage that invariably makes him look like a typically arrogant British pop star of the era. So instead, he chats at unnecessary length with studio engineers (producer Tim Friese-Greene having also declined to be involved), including a long and pointless trip to stand outside the former Wessex recording studio in Islington; meets up with pub rockers like Wilko Johnson and blokes from Eddie and the Hot Rods, who moved in the same circles as Talk Talk’s leader Mark Hollis before he was in a band; chats to ex-members who seem as much session players as full band members; and, rather creepily, films outside Hollis’ house, walking up and down like a nervous stalker. He also travels to Canvey Island to meet drunken and slightly threatening cockneys for no good reason other than the need to pad things out to feature-length and show how arrogantly stupid some British people are (“I think you might have the name wrong” says some old bat who he asks about the band, while everyone else – of course – thinks Talk Talk is a phone provider and at one point, a petty jobsworth comes along to move the crew on from a beach), hires a group of musicians who have never met to create some sort of experiemntal music for no good reason, and travels to other locations where he muses with such laboured intensity (“our journey ended like a race to catch a mirage… while social networks were swarming daily with old images, published as fetishes to keep his memory alive, could he see anything in them but ghosts from a past life?”) that Mrs R, ever astute at such moments, was prompted to ask “does he think he’s making a Godard movie?”. It might seem a cheap shot at a filmmaker who can hardly help doing his voiceover in very serious French, but it also feels on the nose as the film includes endless pastoral scenes (at one point, we watch an out-of-focus fox for a couple of minutes) and generally feels needlessly drawn out.

Look, we all have those bands who we will hail as massively important and misunderstood geniuses – that’s the nature of loving music. So I don’t fault Breës for wanting to make a love letter to the band who first turned him on to what music can do. I don’t even suggest that Talk Talk (or, more accurately, Mark Hollis) doesn’t deserve this sort of attention. But without the band or their music, this does struggle to justify its existence as anything beyond one of those 15 – 45-minute documentaries that litter YouTube. It feels unnecessarily long, and in the end, you don’t seem to know very much about the band as you did before.

DAVID FLINT

In A Silent Way is showing as part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival between the 9th and 16th of November: https://www.docnrollfestival.com/films/

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