It’s probably just a function of my age, and the associated movement of my generational cohort into what it is no longer possible to depict to ourselves as anything other than the latter half of our likely time on the planet, but damn, I seem to be doing a lot of thinking about the Nineties at the moment.
Assorted media synchronicities are encouraging this to happen, of course. As already noted, reading books from the Bold As Love cycle—despite their being written in the Noughties, and heavily referencing the Sixties—has provoked something of a contact high with the end-of-history hedonism of the Nineties. But we’re also at the point when the figures of the firmament of that time are being fitted into their slots in the historical canon, whether by their own hands or those of others. It’s far from being an original observation, but I keep being reminded that 1994 is as long ago from the present moment as 1968 was from 1994… and that to me, from the vantage of 1994, 1968 seemed almost contiguous with the stone age. 1968 was history, grainy monochrome footage spliced into nostalgic TV like The Wonder Years, hippie beads and peace signs and naivete, the sanitisation and bowdlerisation of a period of genuine (if perhaps always destined-to-fail) social-revolutionary aspirations; the making-safe of a rebellion in which few participated, but many would later lay claim to, as soon as it was made safe to do so.
And now, it is the turn of the period which I think of as “my time” to be sealed into the amber of representation… a process that I understand to be inevitable, irresistible, and far beyond my control. (Though I am reminded, over and again, that I can at least try to put my own account out into the world… which would of course mean making the time for creative work outside the bandwidth expenditure required for the creative work of my actual job, and frankly I’m still struggling to meet that latter demand to a level that feels fair and effective. But that’s a topic for another day.)
The latest reminder—which was very much invited across the threshold, so to speak—came in the form of the movie Creation Stories, a biopic of Creation Records impresario Alan McGee directed by Nick Moran (an actor whose breakthrough role was in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, who has directed a handful of films including Telstar: The Joe Meek Story) and (partly) scripted by Irvine Welsh. I’m not a cineaste, so I will refrain from saying much about it as cinema beyond suggesting that I doubt it will ever be celebrated as an example of the form, but remarking also that its limitations—which might be said to be the extent to which it deliberately resurrects the visual and narrative style of mid-Nineties cinema; the hand of Welsh in the storytelling is fairly easily discerned—are in some respects also its advantage in evoking the appropriate sense of time in the intended audience, which we can safely assume to be middle-aged alternative-culture wash-ups and nostalgics such as myself.
But there’s a sort of double anachronism at work: Creation Stories feels rather out of place as a movie of 2021, but its treatment of the Long Nineties would also be out of place if situated in the Long Nineties itself; sure, it has that ironic and aware-of-its-own-fictionality thing going on which was very much a cinematic trope of the time, but it clings to that knowingness not as a veneer laid atop a stratum of what is presented as a deeper metaphorical truth, but rather as the deeper truth atop which the narrative bricolage is assembled. Or, more simply: if Nineties cinema was saying, in essence, “self-referentiality is the subjectivity of our current cultural moment”, Creation Stories doubles down with an argument to the effect that “it’s the turtles of self-referentiality all the way down!” (Though now, having phrased it like that, I suppose it’s more 2021 a film than the aesthetic and subject matter might initially make it appear… and, again, I’m horribly aware that I am not a cineaste, and should probably stop writing about films as theoretically legible entities for that reason. But, on the flipside: my blog, my rules.)
I will mention in passing that I felt the film lacked female characters with agency (with the arguable exception of “Gemma”, the journo to whom the film’s version of McGee is recounting his adventures, whose success is later implied to have been at least in part to McGee’s advice and generosity as an interviewee), and that the only two black characters with (a few) lines felt very uncomfortably stereotyped, but what I’m really interested here is the meta-mechanics of the narrative. Creation Stories makes no bones about its role as a hagiography, an elevation of a person whose claim to fame is rooted in his elevation of others to success—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a hagiography. But it would be very interesting to know the extent of McGee’s own input to the piece, because—as the film makes plain, if not exactly clear—McGee, like his idol Malcolm McLaren, was a sort of instinctive master of the irresistible story of inevitable success, that rare category of the self-trained salesperson whose confidence in the merchandise eventually melds with their confidence in themselves.
Which is to say: this telling of McGee’s story uses light and shade and shock and pathos (and to some extent the sheer weight of momentum) to portray him as simultaneously predestined for success and a relentless hustler willing to endure any privations (not all of which fell on him personally) in order to Make It Happen. And to be fair, the contradictions do come out in the script, with (for example) McGee in the late Creation-at-Sony days recapitulating the self-deluding lines of a mulleted A&R guy from earlier in the film… and those contradictions are held in tension (though not resolved) in the character of McGee, because (like McLaren before him) he recognises (and indeed to some extent celebrates) the fact that the industry is both a sham and a game, while deciding to play it anyway.
The film doesn’t exactly nice-ify McGee either, but it does try to celebrate “rebellion” as an abstract principle in a way that feels, frankly, rather childish. And while it doesn’t exactly shy away from McGee describing himself as a destructive terror of sorts, it does rather portray all of those destructive means as being justified by the ends, or simply by merit of circumstance, or even just handwaving them away so quickly you wonder why them were included at all—as with the very short and hard to parse scene in which his former partner tells him she’s pregnant but, despite having left him due to frustration with his career and lifestyle and lack of prospects, nonetheless tries to trap him into a husband/father role which she believes him to be categorically unsuited for. And, y’know, maybe that really happened, people do weird shit in relationships… but something felt very odd to me in what was clearly meant to be a sort of exculpatory moment in the story, but seemed more like a score-settling.
Because there’s a bunch of score-settling in here, the most notable example being a punch upward, but the others seeming more sidewise. The omissions are perhaps the most effective of these latter, whether they were intended as such or not: the inescapable presence of Teenage Fanclub in the Creation story couldn’t be entirely avoided, and so there are posters of the Bandwagonesque album artwork at the appropriate moments, but the band are (to my memory) entirely absent from both the story and the soundtrack otherwise. Whether this is a snub or just necessarily reductive storytelling is unclear to me, but I guess it may be the latter—because let’s be honest, while Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine are still big respected names with mainstream recognition, I doubt anyone under forty knows who the Fannies are. MBV, meanwhile, play a much bigger role in the film’s story, but it’s not an entirely flattering portrait, with Loveless-era Kevin Shields barring a furious McGee from accessing the studio in which MBV are busily bankrupting Creation with their obsessive overworking of that masterpiece of an album.
But even here, there may be more going on than meets the camera’s eye, given the off-screen participation of both McGee and various Creation artists in the film. As already noted, McGee understands the power of legend and myth, and it might be that the MBV studio scene is less a skewering of Shields than a respectful reinforcing nudge of the man’s own myth: Shields’s management of My Bloody Valentine as a story (I hesitate to say “brand”, because there’s too much substance there for that) has been astute, a crafty mix of self-deprecating deflation on the one hand and a refusal to deflate the stories told by others on the other hand. And perhaps that mythmaking was learned from the grand master McGee? The film depicts the latter as being inspired by Aleister Crowley as much as Malcolm McLaren, which is a pretty bold move these days; even the chaos magick mob seem cautious of mentioning the Great Beast without some accompanying trigger warnings and disclaimers.
But the champion hatchet job is of course reserved for the “political period” after McGee got himself cleaned up and rehabbed after the inevitable excess-in-LA period. And it’s here that I feel the film works hardest to exculpate and justify McGee’s choices—quite understandably, and perhaps not at all untruthfully. The portrayal of the New Labour mob is deeply unflattering, with Mandy and Campbell as effete poshos, the party machinery woefully out of touch and foolish, their only skill or advantage being the recognition of the opportunity at hand, and the spinning of a story that might fill the gap… and while the film really doesn’t labour (sorry) the comparison, I think it worth noting the way in which at this moment like was drawn to like: McGee’s brand of mythmaking and that of New Labour were very different in character, but they were both based on a blend of pragmatism and hunger for success at any price.
Or, to put it another way, I wonder whether what’s being glossed (or spun?) here is a sense of McGee recognising a kinship with the monsters, a kinship of method if not of teleology or principle. But the use of the folk devil of Jimmy Saville, now completely beyond the pale in a way he somehow wasn’t at the time, to tar the New Labour project by association is devastatingly efficient, even if extraordinarily reductive; no amount of well-intended stuff about policy (e.g. McGee’s claim to have influenced the New Deal for musicians, which in my admittedly hazy memory was not much of a gift by comparison to the Thatcherite EAS which he proudly admits kept Creation afloat when the banks would not) could ever make anyone still on the fence about the politics of the period leap to a damning judgement as could the implication of association with Saville. It allows the film’s McGee a way to both own and then almost instantly to disown his involvement with New Labour—and also to draw a line between his brand of narrative magic and the dark arts of Campbell and company, as well as the vampiric version that kept Saville in the system for so long, at such a horrific cost.
All in all, it’s an incredibly partial story which, to its credit, makes no claims to be anything else, and indeed celebrates the power of determined self-creation to change oneself and the world, even as it celebrates a man whose efforts unarguably left a mark on British culture that contributed to history, even if not quite to the extent the film (and its narrator/hero) might like to have us believe. As a man who identifies with alchemists and sorcerers, he presumably knows that the secret to those arts is less your own power than the skillful channelling and shaping of powers external to you.
And again, I don’t think it’s great cinema—but then it probably doesn’t need to be, given its audience is surely people of a similar age and demography to myself, whose preoccupations have always been more with magnetic tape than with celluloid. It’s not even a particularly brilliant examination of the Svengali archetype, or of confidence as the key to magick and/or artistic manifestation… but it’s perhaps the only examination of those things that also features a Creation Records soundtrack. And at the end of the day, that soundtrack is the only reason we know his name.
Not a bad trick, if you know how to do it.