SXSW review: ‘Pulp’

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 10, 2014

In 1979, Jarvis Cocker formed the band Pulp when he was just 15 years old. The first decade of the band’s existence did not provide much in the way of success, but that all changed in the early 1990s when they finally got their due and started to become of the biggest bands in England.

That backstory is not illuminated in Florian Habicht’s documentary on the band that had its world premiere at the festival on Sunday night. As Cocker noted in the post-film Q&A, Habicht instead worked to create a film that was “very much a Pulp film.” It’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek and somewhat understated.

When originally booked for the festival, the title of the film was listed as “Sheffield Sex City.” While they ended up changing that, to a degree it would’ve been more apt. This movie is as much a love letter to the city of Sheffield, England as it is to the band. It illustrates how the working-class background of their home helped to shape who they became as a band. The film doesn’t just spend time talking to the band members (although they’re all on display), but also to fans and yes, the common people that Jarvis sang about in 1995 that earned them a hit single in countries all over the world.

“Pulp” focuses on the band’s final UK reunion concert from 2012 in Sheffield. Saving their birthplace for last, the film features exclusive footage from the concert with performances of classic tracks like “Common People”, “Underwear” and “This Is Hardcore.” It looked and sounded incredible at the Vimeo Theater, which was cranked up for the film. For somebody like me who never had a chance to see them perform live, it’s as good as it gets. Hopefully, like the LCD Soundsystem documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits” that screened at SXSW two years ago, the eventual home video release will include the full concert as a bonus disc.

When Habicht takes the camera outside the arena earlier on the day of the show, he greets a gathering of fans who started to meet very early in the day. One of them, a young soft-spoken nurse from outside Atlanta, says that they’re her favorite band and she had to come to England for the first time so she could take advantage of the last chance to see them play live. Other staged interstitials include a restaurant full of senior citizens performing the band’s song “Help The Aged”, an a cappella performance of “Common People” and Cocker recreating a dream where he has to change a tire.

Displaying a warm affection toward the band and their hometown, the film is wonderfully nostalgic without being maudlin. Sharp, funny and interspersed with gorgeously captured live footage, “Pulp” is anything but common.

“Pulp” screens again at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night at the Stateside.

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