In case you missed it, the summer of 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the original rock-band mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. To honor this oft-quoted cult classic, we’ve delved deep into the past to find another fictional documentary about rock-and-roll. And we’re not so proud of it, especially when it yields this month’s Quirky Queue result, the British film Privilege. Directed by Peter Watkins, winner of a 1965 Oscar for his short film The War Game, Privilege suffers from just being plain old boring.
The plot is familiar: Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is an English rock-and-roll god who commands so much adoration and respect from the younger generation that he becomes a tool for agents, producers, A&R men and, eventually, the Church and the government. The quiet, introverted Shorter is plainly irked by his growing role as a puppet for the powers-that-be, but seems unable to stop the trend. Eventually he finds solace in Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton, immortalized in this Smithereens song), a portrait artist hired to paint the music idol. She helps Shorter take back his life — but potentially at the cost of his fame and fortune.
Privilege is a very capable and professionally executed film, with a cast and direction that’s actually quite good. But everything in Privilege — everything — is overdone. There is way too much narration constantly overstating the obvious, and repetitively forcing the all-too-common theme of a public personality having to sacrifice his private life. Some scenes are commanded with a deftly artistic hand, but seem to go on too long. Interviews with Shorter’s managers and entourage could easily be trimmed and the overall presentation is reminiscent of the modern Hollywood trend of spoon-feeding audiences.
The last half-hour of the film almost makes up for the overwrought script as Shorter’s tolerance reaches a breaking point at a stadium concert sponsored by the Church, where it’s suggested to band members and fans that they give a Hitler salute, and conform to the ideals of God and country. Still, to get there, you have to trudge through 60 minutes of background and set-up that could have easily been squeezed into 20 minutes. This leaves precious little for the central existential conflict with which Steven Shorter wrestles. We’ve got too much telling and not enough showing.
One bright point in Privilege involves an odd TV commercial in which Shorter is forced to star, helping the government sell a surplus of apples which would otherwise rot, uneaten. And while many of the musical numbers are uninteresting, there is one Brit Rock performance of “Onward Christian Soldiers” that is a taste of ironic fun.
If you read the Quirky Queue, you may know I have a natural affinity for rock-and-roll tales, and we’ve seen similar ones that are much more bitingly satiric and contain much more inspired music. So skip this moody clunker, and go directly to Wild In The Streets or Phantom of the Paradise instead.