Since 2006 the prolific Julien Temple has made documentary films about the Glastonbury Festival, the band Dr Feelgood, Joe Strummer, the city of Detroit and Ray and Dave Davies, brothers and ex-members of The Kinks. Taking its title from a quote by Benjamin Disraeli, he has also made this frenetic study of his hometown, London, which careers along at breakneck pace from the end of the Victorian age to the present day, tracing the city’s social, physical and cultural changes along the way.
This psychogeographical film opens with the oldest known footage of the city, from the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th Century, offering a fascinating glimpse into the pre-car and pre-war years. As is his style, Temple then fills the next two hours with a collage of interviews, music, archive footage, and clips from film and television shows in order to tell the story of England’s capital (or at least certain aspects of it). It is often difficult to take everything in, as the footage changes abruptly and often and the soundtrack rarely stays with one song for more than 20 or 30 seconds. Only when interviewees are speaking does the film settle down, the camera trained reverentially upon the speakers as they impart pearls of wisdom while discussing the many ways in which the city has changed during the last hundred years.
In The Modern Babylon London is revealed to be a city that has constantly renewed itself, with successive waves of migrant workers gradually arriving from around the world and – over time – establishing their own communities within the capital. Some first and second generation immigrants are interviewed, detailing their experiences in the city and the difficulties faced when trying to settle.
It is also a city that has seen a large amount of civil disobedience in its history and the past 100 years are no different; there is footage here of the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, the Sidney Street siege, the Battle of Cable Street, the 1990 poll tax riots, the 2011 summer riots, and much more. In fact you would think from watching the film that Londoners like nothing more than kicking off a long, violent riot or some other disturbance after taking afternoon tea. It’s true. In fact as soon as I’ve finished writing this I’m going to knock a policeman’s helmet off and vigorously deface a stamp with the Queen’s image on it.)
The film also addresses the two world wars and, in particular, the damage caused during The Blitz. It examines the depression era, post-war austerity, the 2005 bombings, the IRA’s campaign and the stock market crashes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on the reaction of the city’s resilient inhabitants after these events. With all the footage of unrest, greed, tragedy and anger it’s not a particularly flattering portrait of the city at times, but it’s arguably a very ‘real’ and accurate one, as London often feels as though it is a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames at any minute. In part this is due to the way the city is mixed together; while there are rich and poor areas there are no ghettos in the same sense that they exist in some other cities. Often the million pound plus mansions are over the road or round the corner from the tower blocks, and the large divisions in class coupled with this mix can sometimes lead to explosions of violence and crime. Thankfully the tone of the film is just right: the documentary is solemn when it ought to be, but it isn’t just one long patchwork of bomb and riot footage.
It unsurprisingly pokes fun at the Thatcher years, and one excellent sequence dealing with the rise of acid house includes manipulated footage of the recently departed ex-Prime Minister strutting her stuff to some club music of the time – amusing to those who remember her government’s desire to kill the movement through its draconian legislation. The documentary celebrates London as a cultural leader in terms of music, theatre, art and film. It champions Soho as a haven for outsiders, the docklands as the traditional engine room of the city, and the integral River Thames as the most important natural feature. And yet, somewhat refreshingly, it ignores most of the city’s famous landmarks: Piccadilly Circus, for example, only appears to illustrate the arrival of neon signs.
Temple, an ex-punk, is perhaps a little too infatuated with the punk scene of the late 1970s and the music and attitude that came out of it: while The Clash, The Sex Pistols and other punk acts appear with regularity there is sadly only brief footage of The Rolling Stones or The Who, two London bands that contributed heavily to the city’s 20th Century musical legacy; perhaps Temple feels punk is the one music scene that truly represented London and what the city is about, but there’s a sad feeling of predictability when Malcolm McLaren appears in an old interview. It’s also disappointing that the documentary has little or no place for sport: football in particular is tied in with the culture of the city in the 20th Century onwards and has been hugely important in terms of its social history. That the film fails to acknowledge this is a little baffling.
Still, when attempting to tell the story of a city of this size there are so many angles to choose from it’s inevitable that certain elements and tales will be omitted; it’s unlikely Temple set out to make a definitive history of London, but instead selected subjects about the city that he himself found most interesting, and to be fair he covers a hell of a lot with this film. It is a hyperactive documentary, cleverly edited (despite the witty inclusion of footage at the end of a chimpanzee randomly selecting cinema reels in an archive room, Temple has selected some brilliant footage and has put it together inventively; one can only imagine the time he has spent making this film). It’s an enjoyable and fascinating study of a city that has grown so large it cannot possibly ever stand still: a must-see for Londoners, and probably very interesting to the wider world too.
Directed by: Julien Temple
Written by: Julien Temple
Starring: Michael Gambon, Tony Benn, Suggs
Running Time: 128 Minutes