Sunday, July 14, 2024

No Salesmen; No Canvassers; Two Hawkins – The Darkness Doc Drops

New Documentary Looks to Shed Some Light on The Darkness

Here’s your timeline:

2002 – The Darkness are unsigned

2004 – The Darkness have sold over one million copies of their debut album

2006 – The Darkness split up

‘Welcome to the Darkness’, the long in gestation documentary on the band, looks to fill in the gaps up to the present day. Whilst it doesn’t necessarily achieve this, it does show what life is like not just for The Darkness but for countless other rock bands who have victory snatched from their hands, even after passing the finishing line. The music industry is a complete arsehole, something regularly joked about until it’s your turn in the firing line.

To many, the Golden Chalice is being signed – anyone will do but ideally a major label. Alas, this is the beginning of the end. From handsome advances to minor quibbles over your album’s title and choice of lead single to ‘financial irregularities’, unanswered phone calls and being unceremoniously dumped at your time of greatest need, the one thing that you need to learn quickly about the music industry isn’t that it hates you, it’s that you are meaningless and they can’t even remember your name. The only constant is each other; the only thing that lasts is the music you make; the only ones interested are your fans.

The documentary starts with the band in an unassuming van on the way to their first dates of a set of warm-up gigs in rural Ireland. They hope people will turn up. They do turn up, of course, but with under a couple of hundred able to squash into the rooms usually prepared for post-wedding buffets, you’d be upset if they didn’t. The conversations are forced if still relatively jovial. They’re fully aware that the landscape has changed since they were snorting awards and winning drugs. Two weeks later, their drummer quits.

Justin ponders on whether being called a ‘cult band’ is really what constitutes success.  The bit about having die-hard fans he’s all for – the part about not selling out arenas, less so. This then is the double-edged sword of The Darkness. Part of the reason they became so wildly popular in such a short space of time is that they were making enormous stadium rock songs but were playing pubs on quiet Wednesday evenings at the Water Rats in London. They were the antidote to Coldplay‘s pomposity; the relief from Radiohead‘s stifling self-pity. They didn’t take themselves seriously and the world was a better place for it. One of their superfans sums it up: “I laugh as much as I sing along”.

The thing is, jokes really don’t work in large spaces. half a mile away, at the back of a stadium, there’s something utterly depressing about a wave of laughter rippling across the crowds in front of you before the punchline has even reached you. It’s difficult enough to enchant a large audience with your music, let alone needing your gags to hit the mark every night. What works best for the band are the smaller venues – not tiny, but big enough that you feel you’re part of the show – the jokes are told to YOU, and you don’t just happen to be in the same postcode when they happen.

The band themselves come across exactly as you think they would – Justin and Dan are Lowestoft’s answer to Chris and Rich Robinson – one happy-go-lucky and wisecracking his way through each day, the other watching everything like a hawk with a headache. Frankie Poullain comes across as the wise old sage, very aware that this is his career and one way or another, it needs to work or they have nothing to fall back on. Indeed, when Justin suffers a breakdown (the causes well-reported in the press are barely mentioned in the film) all hell breaks loose. Except the reality which comes across is that when your singer is in rehab and your record label drops you all you’re left with is silence and bills. The brothers don’t speak for a couple of years, easily done when one lives in Norfolk and the other absconds to Switzerland. Unforgivably, Justin’s troubles are accompanied by sad, tinkly piano music, setting back the mental health conversation about 25 years.

They should be back in arenas. It’s madness that they aren’t. Justin’s mulling over his lot again. Thankfully, the missing piece of the jigsaw is now in place. Rufus Taylor is the drummer they always needed – musically astute, thunderous in terms of energy and a perfect balance in terms of personality and stability. One wonders what the future would have looked like had he been in the band during their commercial peak. They all look like they’re having fun, the first time the jokes look like they aren’t written on the backs of their hands.

They launch their 2017 album, ‘Pinewood Smile’, onboard a ferry which passes by the O2 Arena, a nice touch, one which both the lucky punters aboard and the band revel in. The reality of being a working band is writ large when they show a line of fans waiting to meet their heroes as part of their meet-and-greet tickets. The band are humble and grateful, not least that it inches them closer to their soundcheck. The fans are delighted. One asks if Justin has a cure for man flu. Lo’, the singer is riddled with germs for the tour. Worse, after their first show, he’s diagnosed with polyps on his vocal cords, leading him to squawk, “Why can’t my fucking voice work?”. Dan has testicular cancer and is operated on. For a moment, I wonder where the sad tinkly piano has gone but it’s just waiting in the Swiss hospital for Justin to arrive. Justin waits for his band to wish him luck for the op. They think he probably wouldn’t like that. Not so sure.

Even with a sensible running time, there’s plenty which could have been trimmed and what isn’t included is glaring by its absence. What we are given is a proper British rock band – one which worked hard to get to the top and then took it on the chin when the rug was pulled from under them. This is no Spinal Tap – the lows are significant and the wins are human as much as commercial but the bond between the band and their fans is undeniable.

Daz Lawrence

‘Welcome to the Darkness’ screens in selected cinemas from November 9th and is released digitally and on Blu-Ray on 4th December

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