Director: Niall McCann
Starring: Stuart Braithwaite, Stewart Henderson and Alex Kapranos
Release Date: Out Now in selected cinemas
Niall McCann’s documentary Lost in France is the story of the Scottish independent music scene of the ‘90s, as told by the musicians of Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground record label.
The film frames its story between two of the label’s gigs in the small French town of Mauron, one in 1997 and a reunion event in 2015.
Boasting acts such as Mogwai, The Delgados and Arab Strap, Chemikal Underground were pivotal in the creation of Glasgow’s Indie Rock sound during the late 90s, taking financial risks on new bands and providing like-minded artists a creative outlet for expression. McCann’s documentary is an unabashed, unapologetic love-letter to Chemikal Underground, both its biggest strength and failing.
Lost in France makes almost no attempt to cater to the uninitiated. Although the film spends some time explaining the growth of the Glasgow music scene (primarily through the eyes of Chemikal Underground label-head Stewart Henderson), anyone unfamiliar with the bands on show will find little of interest in this documentary.
In an attempt to relive past glories, McCann and Henderson arrange a return to Mauron, where the label’s musicians such as Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaithe played a supposedly legendary gig almost 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, bar some brief footage and a few candid photographs, little record of the actual concert exists within the film. Even the musicians struggle to remember what exactly happened, somewhat throwing into doubt the exact level of the event’s success. Instead, label-mates reminisce about their tour-bus driver and a football match against a local French club.
While initially telling the story of the Mauron trip, the film quickly swerves into a different trajectory to profile Mogwai, probably the most recognisable band in the film. McCann’s love of Mogwai is evident almost immediately, with concert footage of recent Mogwai gigs interspersed throughout most of the film.
While Mogwai’s Braithwaithe gives an overview of the post-rock band’s formation, Lost in France doesn’t allow Braithwaithe’s story time to breathe, quickly moving on to other bands on the label.
A documentary is made in the edit and while the film-makers have clearly gone to lengths to assemble interviews and concert footage, the lack of focus on any particular artist is the film’s main issue. Most regrettable is the lack of screen time devoted to R.M. Hubbert, one of Chemikal Underground’s lesser known artists.
In what easily ranks as the film’s standout scene, Hubbert reveals the reasons for recording his album Thirteen Lost & Found, a beautiful story of the artist’s struggle with depression and his desire to reconnect with the friends and musicians he’d lost touch with over the years.
His tale is touching and one of the only moments of true emotion in a film that relies far too much on late ‘90s nostalgia in lieu of a well-honed narrative.
Other potentially strong moments are lessened in effect by the inclusion of archival footage, including the film’s final moments when newly formed Glaswegian supergroup The Maurons (Kapranos, Braithwaithe and Hubbert) cover an old Franz Ferdinand song.
What could have been a tender ending to this small, intimate film is cheapened by the inclusion of old concert footage of Franz Ferdinand playing to a crowd of thousands. It jars with everything we’ve seen of Mauron so far and hammers home the main issue with the film:
Lost in France simply contains too many underdeveloped or undeserving stories to follow. As the film goes on, artists and others involved in the label’s history simply disappear from the story altogether, their parts ending in a whimper that makes you wonder why they were brought up in the first place.
The lack of one strong narrative to follow leaves the film struggling to find a satisfying conclusion and in a telling final scene, the director is asked directly by Stewart Henderson why he felt the need to make this film about a story he’d “never put on a pedestal”.
Despite all this, McCann is to be lauded for the clear passion on display in the making of this film and one gets the impression that if the focus was on one particular band, he could craft a much stronger narrative.
Written by Julian Callan