VOD film review: King Rocker
Information on showers taken by Robin Askwith9
Laurence Boyce | On 06, Feb 2021
Director: Michael Cumming
Cast: Stewart Lee
Where to watch King Rocker online in the UK: DocFest 2021 / Sky Arts / NOW
King Rocker is streaming as part of Sheffield DocFest – find out more about the festival here.
In 1973, if one were to walk out of the then Birmingham New Street Station, one would be faced with a statue of King Kong. Commissioned as a piece of public art, it was soundly rejected by the more vocal residents of the Midlands. Stewart Lee, stand-up comedian and presenter of King Rocker, makes the point that this isn’t an isolated incident of Birmingham rejecting its culture. As he tells the story of Robert Lloyd, lead singer of cult bands such as The Residents and The Nightingales, he reveals a man who has all the credentials but none of the mainstream success.
With Lloyd in tow, Lee examines the ups and downs of a musician and his bands in a roughly chronological history. The spine of the story is perhaps unsurprising for anyone who is a purveyor of music documentaries. There’s Lloyd’s early life with a dysfunctional family and teenage homelessness, the burgeoning Birmingham punk scene and his work with The Prefects that captured imaginations in the city. There’s the patronage of our Lord John Peel, the fleeting brushes with fame and the excitement of youth. But there’s later disappointment, a surfeit of goodwill that does little to pay the bills. There’s a failed solo career, a sojourn in London with tantalising highs and awful lows. Then there’s the return of The Nightingales as Lloyd gets older and becomes reflective on his legacy.
The central duo of Lee and Lloyd make for fine company throughout the film. An avuncular duo, Lee gently prises information out of Lloyd (often while both are indulging in a meal) who drifts between sarcasm and sombre reflection about his past and what the future will bring. Lloyd is clearly a principled and complex character, warm but with a hint of anger and conflicted at what his legacy will be. In never “selling out” (even punk seemed to be rife with affection for him) he kept his ideals intact but lacked any significant reward. As one of his band mates puts it: “Everyone loved us apart from the people who bought records. That was the fucking drawback.”
Lee brings both the enthusiasm of a fan and a deep fondness for Lloyd. Indeed, their friendship – often sharing a joke – gives the film a warmness and intimacy. Yet the film never descends into indulgence or navel gazing – indeed, even those without much knowledge of the scene will find themselves drawn in.
The film revels in digressions. Frank Skinner turns up and talks about being the first lead singer of The Prefects – for about 5 minutes. An all-star comedy cast of the likes of Kevin Eldon and Paul Putner appear for a table read of a sitcom that Lloyd co-wrote (in a section that begs for a release as a DVD extra). These digressions are like the pickles to the poppadum that is the main story, adding a spicy piquancy. But they also make the film much more than Lloyd’s story. It becomes an examination of Birmingham, a treatise on culture, an examination of the haziness of memory, a riff on ageing and coming to terms with one’s legacy. But it never becomes messy and unwieldy.
This is partly because it never takes itself too seriously as a film, as director Michael Cummings (known for his work in British comedy, directing such shows as Brass Eye) constantly playing with the documentary form. Lloyd and Lee and indulge in a documentary cliché, as they go to a location that was formally the legendary Barbarella’s Disco. But here they so it three times with the final location being a bin. Top comedian Ted Chippington is meant to be interviewed but doesn’t turn up as Lee fervently hopes they have the rights to an interview he did with him a decade previously. Even cheeky ‘Confessions’ series of movies star Robin Askwith turns up to talk about the famous people he’s had a shower with (which does make a twisted sense in context). The film keeps reminding us it’s a documentary with all the attendant pros and cons.
It also makes Lee’s comparison of Lloyd to the aforementioned King Kong statue seem apropos. Small animated segments illustrating moments in Lloyd’s life depict the singer as the statue and it seems his life– as Lee tries to discover what happened to it after it was rejected by Birmingham – does seem to have some eerie parallels with the fate of the statue. Lee gleefully realises that the metaphor may be strained, but he goes with it with such gusto that one can’t help but be convinced.
This is a brilliantly constructed documentary, consistently interesting and never less than fascinating. Of course fans of Lloyd and the Prefects / Nightingales will be sold, but those with even a passing interest in British music and culture will not find themselves disappointed.
King Rocker is streaming at DocFest 2021 until 2pm on Tuesday 15th June. It is also available on Sky Arts until 31st October 2023. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.