On a particularly terrible night in London, singer Bomar Faery endured not one but two muggings. The unfortunate musician, decked out in a fuzzy leopard-print jacket and a thick coat of violet eyeshadow to tell his story, simply put himself on a Megabus back to Sheffield, where a kindly bartender welcomed him home by playing hours of Pulp. It’s not that you don’t get mugged in Sheffield, Bomar explains, but if you do, there’s usually something humorous about it. Likely, your assailant is someone you know.
This is the kind of story that brings Sheffield to funny, endearing, self-deprecating life in Florian Habicht’s Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets. The documentary, which closed Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Sound + Vision festival last night, is built around Pulp’s final reunion show in the midsize post-industrial city where they formed back in 1978, when Jarvis Cocker was just 14 years old. But despite some excellent footage of that 2012 show — including several shots of Cocker thrusting and gyrating, often brilliantly decontextualized from the songs he sings — this isn’t really a concert film. It’s a portrait of a truly unique band through the prism of the somewhat unexpectedly fascinating place that created it.
The first thing you realize is how many people in Sheffield know and love Pulp. It’s not just the cool Gen-Xers; it’s the eccentric newsstand clerk and the motherly 60-something lady, who’s thought long and hard about why she prefers them to Blur. (And she’s right: Pulp do have better lyrics.) A woman at a local pool tells Habicht about the pair of Pulp underwear she made for herself, with Jarvis’ name printed across the “bum.” He is, she says, the third person in her marriage, even though he doesn’t know it. The band sponsors drummer Nick Banks’ daughter’s Sheffield soccer team, whose shiny red jerseys bear the all-caps Pulp logo. And Habicht meets a young butcher at Castle Market, a local indoor food market that has since shut down, who points him toward the fishmonger stall where Cocker worked as a teenager. In an interview, Cocker recalls how he’d soak his hands in bleach after a shift, futilely attempting to rid himself of the fish smell before going out to high school parties.
Habicht complements these lovely, unrehearsed moments with some inspired set pieces built around Pulp’s biggest hits. A local dance team steps to “Disco 2000,” a women’s choir sings “Common People,” and best of all, the gray-haired Victoria Live at Home singing group performs “Help the Aged.” (In a Q&A after the screening, Habicht explains that the latter are reading magazines in their scene because none of them memorized the words to the song, and he had to paste in lyric sheets for them to read off.)
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.