‘Pulp’ Review: A Rockumentary For the “Common People”

Pulp documentary

British rock band Pulp’s best-known song, “Common People,” is a satire of cultural tourism, an indictment of the valorization of working class authenticity by those who do not belong to it. As working class identity has been an essential part of British rock ’n’ roll, “Common People” is essentially a middle finger to interloping posers, to those who have the privilege to pose as working class by having the comfort of not being subject to its stigma. It’s a rejoinder to those who see the “common people” as a homogeneous, unspecific group rather than, you know, people.

“Common People” is repeated throughout Florian Habicht’s documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, serving as a mobilizing anthem for both the band and its devoted fans.

Pulp is simultaneously a concert documentary and a biographical portrait of Pulp’s lead singer, Jarvis Cocker — a layered feat that Habicht elegantly accomplishes by framing the film around Pulp’s farewell show in their hometown of Sheffield, Yorkshire. Through this framing, Habicht gives contextual insights into the band’s past as they emerge through their interactions with the present — it doesn’t try to tell a comprehensive history of the band from A to Z but covers the important shifts and elements that have defined their career, from its members’ pre-Pulp beginnings to the angry, reactionary days of their 1998 album This is Hardcore, which found the band lashing out at the demands of modest success.

The interviews Habicht captures with Cocker and his bandmates (Cocker’s status as the star of the show is never thrown in doubt here) are calm and reflective, even muted. Pulp, in a seemingly genuine evocation of the reserved temperament of its subject, refreshingly eschews rock star clichés. Little focus is given to stories of drug addiction, band infighting and the like, with the film instead choosing to give its attention to the everyday nature of rock stardom as it has played out over decades of collaboration.

The members of Pulp simultaneously exist in the past and present as they prepare for a final show, but reservedly so, trading in well-earned realism for romantic nostalgia. Pulp is certainly a celebration of Pulp, but it forgoes hagiography in favor of something simpler and, seemingly, more honest: a portrait of a band in a moment that allows them to reflect on their history.

Yet if all of this relative modesty calls into question the rock star status of Pulp, Habicht’s footage of the final Sheffield show serves to put any such reservations to rest by capturing Cocker’s dynamic and charismatic stage persona from the enveloping point-of-view of a fan in the front row. Cocker makes a convincing case that brash showmanship is far from dead in rock.

But Pulp itself is hardly the most interesting thing about Pulp. No doubt propelled by the band’s unofficial manifesto, the film intersperses time well spent with the band alongside footage of the, ahem, “common” working class people of Sheffield. An interesting choice, this device serves several ends: demonstrating the reach and depth of Pulp’s influence on fans, lessening the rock star status of Pulp to something more accessible by juxtaposing them amongst (and of) the people of Sheffield, and giving some color and specificity to Sheffield as a place of origin for Pulp, thereby undermining any opportunity to turn the band’s hometown into a vague, nostalgic site. Sheffield, in other words, isn’t Liverpool.

However, it’s hard to say whether these vignettes actually produce a portrait of everyday Sheffieldians or instead serve the identity and political investments of Pulp. More importantly, this device seems to most overtly serve a documentary about Pulp. Habicht is as openly fascinated by the idea of capturing anonymous residents of Sheffield as he is by the act itself, reminding his fleeting subjects at one point that they are on camera for the world to see. They are, in essence, openly used as tools for a clever thematic device. The documentary isn’t about them.

What exactly is different, then, between what Habicht is doing and the cultural tourism called out by Pulp’s most defining song? Perhaps there is no invocation of working class identity in British rock ’n’ roll without class tourism. Perhaps that’s the joke. But I’m not so sure if the film is in on it.

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets is now in theaters and on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD outlets.