Raindance 2023: Warhol

A London-based study of the creeping malaise of influencer culture and social alienation is nowhere near as profound as it thinks it is.

There are films that are quietly, unpretentiously brilliant and thought-provoking, films with something to say that manage to do so with an emotive power and sense of authenticity that comes from the knowledge that if you do get overtly preachy, it’ll be OK because either the audience will have been with you on that journey or that you are suddenly throwing them a curveball, making them question whatever assumptions they may have had and pulling the rug of expectation and dogmatism from under them.

And then there are films like Warhol.

Warhol wants to be the sort of film that I’ve described above but it just isn’t up to it. Let’s be blunt here: Warhol is a bad film. It’s bad in many ways but the worst aspect of the movie is a misguided sense of its own brilliance – the idea that everyone involved thinks that this is a deeply profound work whereas you, dear viewer, might be forgiven for thinking that it is entirely predictable and unconvincing, telling us nothing that we haven’t seen before in smarter, better films.

Warhol interweaves three different stories in more-or-less real-time – the final show of a US Shock Jock now working in a low-rent London radio station (‘Mayhem FM’, hahaha) and battling both the studio bosses trying to control his virulent and contrived outbursts during his phone-in show and his own demons; a homeless army vet trying to persuade a young wannabe gangster from shooting someone as part of his gang initiation; and three people in a ‘touch the car’ contest, each wanting to win for different reasons. Within these stories we get intense discussion – oh, do we ever – about the moral highs and lows, the need for ‘success’ and to be somebody, the fakery of fame and the emptiness of social media. All very valid areas for discussion and some of writer/director Adam Ethan Crow’s points are worthwhile ones. But everything is drowned in the sort of overwhelming and unconvincing student-filmmaker dialogue that I’m sure looked great as it went on and on and on across the pages of the script but which feels exhaustingly contrived and unrealistic when spoken. I mean, this is quite literally scripted philosophical preaching that we are supposed to believe has come spontaneously from the mouths of the characters – and while you can just about accept that a professional rent-a-gob like American DJ Dave Dawson might have a habit of waxing lyrical between bouts of insults and abuse of his listeners – though even here, his closing speech feels both artificial and unconvincing – it seems incredibly awkward when spouted by ex-soldier Solomon (named very consciously, I’m sure, given that he is spewing ‘wisdom’ at his young nemesis). There is room for a convincing discussion between two men who are more connected than initially seems the case – after all, both soldier and gangster are sent out to kill strangers without explanation – but Kashif O’Connor is saddled with the most cumbersome dialogue imaginable, all of which probably sounded great in Crow’s head and looked very impressive when written, none of which works in the slightest when spoken in this context. It’s the most awkward story in the film because it is literally nothing but philosophising that neither the writer nor the actor seem convincing at or convinced by.

In the slightest of the stories, the ‘win a car’ narrative, we get black deaf girl Karleen competing with a white man and white woman as the last three standing while also struggling with the collapse of her relationship with her girlfriend. I think that she’s supposed to be sympathetic but in all honesty, it’s hard not to side with the girlfriend who rages at her for walking out on the small restaurant job she’d found her without giving notice or being baffled by her reason for wanting to win the car – so she could salvage her relationship by selling it to buy a flat and go on holiday rather than, you know, telling her partner before leaving her job and vanishing for two days in order to enter a stupid radio contest. The motivations that propel her are seemingly designed to make her seem sympathetic but she just seems like a pouty brat with a misguided sense of priorities, letting her partner storm out in order to carry on trying to win the car that will miraculously solve all their problems. Can I remind you that this film takes place in London, where flats tend to cost considerably more than cars? As motivations go, this is not exactly the most relatable.

The main story – presumably the one that started life as a 20-minute short from Crow, suggesting that the other stories are simply padding to take things up to feature length – is that of the DJ and the embattled station manager who is trying to control his on-air rants. There’s more substance here as Dawson flits from the radio persona that he can’t escape from and more personal, confessional bits that eventually come together when a caller reports that he can hear someone in his house. Initially egging the kid into self-defence, Dawson has to deal with the fall-out after things start to terribly wrong, leading to a moment of self-reflection – or, more accurately, a somewhat unfocused rage against the facile nature of social media, the rise of the influencer and the desire by everyone to be famous or infamous – the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ predicted by Andy Warhol now reduced to fifteen seconds (hence the film title, of which more in a moment). Yes, it’s all valid but equally, there’s nothing new here – it feels like someone having what they think is an epiphany but is actually just what everyone else is saying already. As a piece of writing about how everything is shit and how people just follow the herd, how free speech is now just the loudest voices dominating and how we really shouldn’t be listening to vacuous media personalities who often don’t even believe their own bullshit, it’s fine enough. As the film’s piece de resistance, it feels a bit less of an emotionally raw, revolutionary manifesto than you suspect it is supposed to be. Let’s be fair – there are already great films that explore the world of talk radio and have great actors making genuinely powerful soliloquies. If you are going to go there, you need to be a lot better than this.

Supposedly, the idea for this film – or at least the original short – came from the story of Jacintha Saldanha, the London nurse who was pranked by two DJs who tricked her into putting their call through to the Duchess of Cambridge when the royal was in hospital in 2013. Saldanha was hounded by the British press and took her own life as a result. It’s a dreadful story – one that reflects more on the monstrous British newspapers than it does on the DJs, you might think. There’s probably a film to be made about the unthinking antics of comedy DJs and dreadful, cynical hacks who drive people to suicide for shits ‘n’ giggles. But this film doesn’t really look at those issues at all. Dawson isn’t a prank caller – if anything, it’s because he dismisses his caller as a prankster that things go wrong. The film seems fixated on the idea of people doing anything for fame but never quite gets to grips with that. Saldanha was not looking to be famous – she didn’t even know that she was talking to radio DJs. The DJs were already ‘celebrities’ and just doing their regular entertainment schtick that everyone found hilarious up until it all went wrong. ‘Fame’ and ‘celebrity’ might all be mixed up here somewhere but the film can’t quite work out where, and that feels like the ultimate failing. Clearly, Crow thinks that he is making some sort of grand statement here but the result is a muddled mess about… what? The need to conform? Basic human kindness overcoming the need for attention or personal gain? The pressures of a social media world? I guess it is all here, thrown around in a slapdash manner, mixed up and messy, and then awash with endless dialogue that is not as smart or insightful as its writer thinks it is. It all starts to become very hard work after a while, like being cornered at a party by some drunk smart arse who wants to loudly tell you the bleedin’ obvious at great length.

Let’s pause for a positive. The film looks great – not revolutionary but slick and stylish. As a calling card for cinematographer Stuart White, it’s impressive. There’s atmosphere at times when the film doesn’t deserve it and that’s a plus too. It’s far from being the most laboured story of urban London life that I’ve seen and if the theme was pitched as a story of alienation, it might all make more sense. In fairness, I’ve spent more time discussing it here – and over breakfast after seeing it – than I have done much better films, so perhaps that also means something. I have no doubt that a lot of critics will say that this is good, maybe even great. You know the sort. And in truth, there is potential here – I have no doubt that a much better film exists somewhere within this project. Does any of this make it good? Sorry, no. It’s a film that perhaps needed a director who wasn’t the writer to knock some of the dialogue into shape and better actors to cope with it – or to at least point out that, as Harrison Ford allegedly said to George Lucas, you can write this shit but you can’t say it. Perhaps Crow will go on to do better work with someone else’s screenplay. Who knows?

And then there is the title – the same title shared with the original short film. It exists as a reference to Andy Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ quote but makes no sense within the expanded narrative – because the wannabe gangster is looking for street cred and respect, not fame, and the car contestants are driven by personal greed (God knows how many people would even know that they are taking part; while the influence of ’28th most popular radio station in London’ seems to change depending on plot requirements, surely this competition would’ve gone unnoticed by everyone as not even the DJ on air seems to even mention it). But the quote has to be passingly explained within the film, where characters not only haven’t heard it before but also don’t know who Warhol is. Giving a film a title that is a meaningless reference that you then need to explain seems the height of pretension unless Crow believes that his audience will be smarter than the people that the film is about – a curiously snobby attitude, you might think.

But more pragmatically – why on earth would you needlessly lumber a movie with a title that dooms it to be buried in online searches? Don’t take my word for it – type ‘Warhol film’ into your search engine of choice and see what shows up. It won’t be this or the 2013 short, I assure you. The film’s title dooms it to be lost in space, another voice desperately and vainly shouting for attention. That might be poetic justice given the subject matter but it also seems a pointless handicap to saddle your project with. I have no doubt that this film is a deeply sincere passion project for its director – that’s probably why he has not been able to objectively listen to the endless dialogue and see why it just doesn’t work when said out loud – and I doubt that he’ll be inclined to listen to any advice from me after this review. But please – at the very least, rethink that title if you want people to actually see this movie.


Warhol plays the Raindance Festival on October 31st 2023.

Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!