Music documentaries are increasingly becoming a practice in archeology rather than anthropology. Part of that is the immediacy with which surfacing subcultures and movements are found and regarded (if there’s an oppressed music scene in a developing nation, Vice seems to have already done a three-part series on it). The other side of that is the growing awareness of entire discographies of undiscovered gold that curators’ music appreciators pan relentlessly. Most of the time, this results in little more than rehashing territory already well-trodden; however, on rare occasions, there are entire veins of brilliance that are uncovered. The Jangling Man: The Martin Newell Story, this latest biopic on Martin Newell (and Cleaners from Venus frontman) by filmmaker James Sharp is one such example.
Unearthing a career such as Newell’s, at first glance, must have seemed as thankless a task as one could consider. His discography of self-recorded cassettes, his stint in gardening, and his collections of poetry all lend an impermeable veneer, relegating it quite firmly to the underground. Newell’s unpolished output (and attitude) guaranteed him infamy rather than its counterpart in the mainstream. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cutting room floor: Sharp brought a firmness of commitment and a deft lens to a life that would have suffered without such a talented hand on the wheel.
The movie begins and unfolds with the same gleeful staccato of non-sequitur taped segments that makes Everything Is Terrible such fascinating Videogum. It’s a fitting mode, given the subject matter, which oscillates between a Babadook English farmer, glam rocker, royal eccentric, and cantankerous old poet with enough vitriol to fill any room. To that point, Newell recounts in the first minutes of the film how he refused to send out review copies to people “who couldn’t even write as well as [him], let alone play an instrument.” In the same breath, he points out how his impudent attitude was deadly to any notion of anything past notoriety in the industry.
Newell’s story is another example of an artist who refused to abide by niceties, particularly where the music industry is concerned (just this year, we reviewed Fabulous’ unearthed discography, Get F*cked By Fabulous, yet another English artist who was infamous for their refusal to play nice with the music bigwigs). As it happens, there is no shortage of laugh-out-loud moments. Most of these are courtesy of Newell himself, who’s a splendidly eccentric curmudgeon, and has no qualms with telling people where to go. One of these is when he throws doubt on any chances of touring. His take on how older artists look on stage is too good to be spoiled here, but suffice it to say it stands out as a highlight of the film. It also acts as an early answer to any would-be clout chasers: here is a man who is not interested in any of your bullshit, thank you very much.
And we, the audience, believe him. The film is a sincere ode to a career known for being unknown. This just happens to be subject matter for yet another documentary that, through the act of observing, elevates its subject matter to previously unforeseen heights.
Director: James Sharp
Producer: Larson Media
Distributor: Captured Tracks
Release Date: September 29, 2022 (Hackney, UK), October 8, 2022 (Los Angeles, CA, USA)
Run Time: 113 minutes