By any normal measure, Julien Temple’s film London could easily have been terrible. The conceit, a slew of archive footage interspersed with talking head interviews, is the recipe for loads of horrendous television programmes that serve as filler on the higher numbered cable channels.
What’s remarkable about this film is just how effective it is at giving a sweeping take on this historic city without meandering off into mediocrity. Starting from when London was the capital of a majority of the planet, through its trials and tribulations, wars and riots and other blights, Temple manages to get at the spirit of his home town in a way that’s fairly unique. Sure, we’ve seen a slew of Londonphilic trapping this Olympic year, but Temple’s film provides a far more robust take on the story of this great metropolis.
The quantity and obscurity of some of the clips is what’s perhaps most astonishing – it’s clear that Temple and his diligent researchers spent an ungodly amount of time parsing thousands of hours of clips in order to come up with some pretty choice material. The film proceeds in a rough chronological order, from the nadir of the Victorian age through to the remarkably diverse city that it has become.
We hear from people that have lived through much of the last century, telling tales of their own introduction to the city. There is no whitewashing of the tribulations that have occurred, nor is any of the racial and economic tensions bypassed. Instead, these elements provide a kind of bedrock for what has strengthened the city and its people over the last several generations.
Temple’s previous documentaries have included looks at the likes of Joe Strummer and the Sex Pistols, so it’s no surprise that music plays an integral role in the construction of the film. The diversity of London’s musical expression is tied directly to the varied clips, from skiffle and folk through the rise of Rock, the growth of Punk, through to modern dance and other pop musics. Little attention is paid to so-called progressive British artists, but this is hardly a nit to pick, as it’s a failing of almost all such looks at the sweep of English music as punk fans try to put under the rug a decade of experimentation, pomposity and fun.
Specific trials, from the blitz, strikes, terrorist bombings and the like are interspersed with stories of camaraderie and resilience. Objectively the story of London is a remarkable one, and much like New York (or, dare I suggest, Toronto) it’s a story told by wave after wave of immigrants who have helped shaped the city through their languages and cultures. This is the strength of this an other like cities, the multiplicity of voices and concerns that provide a kind of harmonious cacophony, a polyglot locale that despite its seemingly random variety finds a shared meaning.
It’s thus all the more apt that Temple’s fragmented approach bespeaks the very nature of the place he’s celebrating. For it seems that only through these wide variety of elements, these individual building blocks making a whole, that we can really get a sense of this remarkable city.
The capper of the entire piece is a wonderful clip where we see an ape in a film archive, strewing about reams of 35mm film. A laconic voiceover talks about the nature of assembling such a project, the random intersections of certain images as one goes through these various elements in the hopes of crafting a whole. Temple and his team are well aware of the pitfalls of such a project, and this winking, post-credit finale, a clip that takes place after the Kings sing of Waterloo’s sunset, is indicative of the wit they provide to their wonderful assemblage that celebrates London.