This local newsstand clerk is one of the film’s many stars.
Although they could have come off as gimmicky or exploitative, these scenes are done in such a loving, respectful way that they only further illustrate what kind of city Sheffield is: friendly and down-to-earth, with an endlessly likable eagerness to laugh at itself. Speaking to the audience at Lincoln Center, Habicht called it “a really special place, really creative,” and noted that the people there are “really into music,” to the extent that you can find a makeshift live show in almost any bar you walk into. This, Habicht feels, is a fairer explanation for why Sheffield has given birth to so many big bands (from Def Leppard to The Human League to Arctic Monkeys) than the cliché that kids in British industrial cities make music to escape the bleakness that surrounds them.
What all this has to do with Pulp — and particularly the way Cocker’s lyrics and performance style combine sexuality and humor and a radical sense of democracy that’s both narrative and political — will be obvious to anyone who has listened to their classic 1995 album Different Class even once. But, of course, the band members and what was supposedly Pulp’s last show ever also play a more literal role in the film. We get to know everyone a little bit, from keyboard player Candida Doyle’s teenage diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis to guitarist Mark Webber’s insistence that he is, in fact, a common person who rides the bus. (Asked whether Jarvis also is, he quite diplomatically responds that he has the potential to be.)
Habicht’s interviews with Cocker underline just what kind of rock star a place like Sheffield creates: Jarvis is charming, sure, but he’s also thoughtful and disarmingly genuine at the most unexpected moments. Watching him get flustered for a second over a question about “Help the Aged” and mortality, you realize how much more there is to the song than a crude joke about sex with old people. This strange honesty is echoed in many of the film’s interviews with fans; a young nurse who flew in from Atlanta to see her favorite band for the very first time tells Habicht that part of the reason she loves Pulp is because Jarvis sings about single mothers, and she’s a single mother.
Perhaps Pulp turned out to be such a distinctive, loving tribute to a band through its character-filled home city because it was made by a director who’s just as much of a character as anyone he profiles — Habicht did, after all, tell the Lincoln Center audience that he originally got in touch with Cocker by hiring a detective to find his email address. Whatever the reason, this truly is a film about life, death, and supermarkets, which means it’s a far better film about Pulp than any mere record of their final concert would have been.