Considering how many major pop acts cultivate a bland, indistinct transatlantic identity that belies specific geographical roots, there’s something rather admirable and touching about artists that defy commercial considerations and embrace their provinciality.
A band’s region-specific identity can often become part of its cult appeal. Take the wonderful XTC. Self-described by frontman Andy Partridge as a group full of “hayseeds”, the Swindon band wrote complex songs about small town Wiltshire society and the rural landscape surrounding it, all sung with a warm West Country burr that marked XTC as one of the most identifiably English groups in the world. (Surprising, then, that XTC eventually became far more successful in America than in its native Britain, but that’s another story.)
Similarly, another very English artist to have garnered international critical and commercial acclaim is Sheffield’s Jarvis Cocker. Both a successful solo artist and Pulp‘s de facto leader, Cocker is an eccentric and charismatic figure, a sartorial throwback with a Yorkshireman’s sharp, deadpan wit. He has also never shied away from his Northern roots. (Like XTC, Cocker’s accent is an unmistakable facet of his output.)
So, here is 2013’s The Big Melt. Originally commissioned by the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest, the film was subsequently broadcast on BBC Four’s Storyville documentary strand, and is distributed here by the BFI.
The Big Melt finds Sheffield’s own son Cocker entering a creative collaboration in order to turn a retrospective lens onto his home city. Taking to its apex the concept of embracing one’s roots as an inspiration for artistic endeavour, Cocker and film director Martin Wallace examine and celebrate the cultural and social impact of Sheffield’s formerly mighty steel industry, from its historical beginning to its gradual decline, and the way in which steel shaped the identity of both the city and its inhabitants.
The Big Melt is really an elegy, not just for the steel industry in Sheffield, but for Britain’s proud and innovative industrial heritage, too. (Despite the film’s tone of lament, there is good reason for contemporary Sheffield to be optimistic: the city has managed to emerge from the shadow cast by industrial decline, with efforts to diversify and regenerate recognised with a coveted place on the shortlist for the UK City of Culture Award in 2010.)
The film is essentially a feature-length montage of historical footage, sourced from the extensive documentary archive at the BFI. Cocker has directed the musical backdrop (which was recorded live at The Crucible in Sheffield in 2013, a concert that features in the DVD’s extras), and his choices and sources are generally excellent. A mixture of quirky synth-pop, film soundtrack and slices of Brian Wilson-esque baroque chamber pop without the sweet and intricate vocal harmonies, the score well-embellishes the film’s sequences of heavy industry and progress (lots of the music has a driving, repetitive nature to it), and although a few vocal songs are included here and there, the highlights are definitely the orchestral passages, which give the film a more expansive scope.
The visuals are as fascinating as they are varied. The film begins with a booming narration (like Frith’s intro to Watership Down), over which a colourful and slightly abstract animation shows the plant process of smelting, forming, cutting and shaping steel. We see Victorian chimney stacks belching, and gaggles of sooty-looking men around the turn of the century (in footage that looks like it was shot by Mitchell and Kenyon) queuing for work amongst the labyrinths of brick; they laugh, clown around and gawp bemusedly and excitedly into the lens, as only those who’ve never before seen a film camera tend to do. Background detail is the key, too; the eagle-eyed may catch a pair of young bucks fighting (they prance and jab formally, all fairness and Queensbury rules), and a grumpy, hostile-looking young worker staring menacingly, before dismissively flicking a V-sign at the cameraman. It’s all very odd and charming.
The film is also punctuated with sequences that show the various applications for finished steel: a washing machine with a metal basket trundles away in a ’50s living room; huge electricity pylons and steel-girdered buildings are constructed, and a whirling fairground ride and massive bridge are juxtaposed in the same shot.
The Big Melt also shows all the small, domestic applications: umbrella frames being tested on a production line, a xylophone being finished and played, a stainless steel kettle pouring water into a cup, and so on. There’s not a great deal of diegetic sound on the original archive footage, so Cocker often incorporates into the score an approximation of what we’re seeing onscreen: a glockenspiel motif when the children are playing, a brass instrument motif when a brass band are seen tuning up, that kind of thing.
Those only familiar with Cocker through his work with Pulp with be pleasantly surprised by the eloquent series of compositions he has curated and overall, the synthesis of archive documentary and music is very effective. Naturally, much of the archive material is black-and-white, and whilst it would have been terrific to have seen a little more dramatic colour footage, there’s still enough of it to breathe vibrancy into the living history on display, particularly when showing the glowing foundries and their hellish hissing furnaces and silhouetting toiling men like foreground shadow puppets. The effect is very Dante’s Inferno.
Despite the large, red-brick shells and ruins that pock modern Sheffield like exposed Jurassic bones, many of those born after the city’s manufacturing decline may find it hard to comprehend the scale of industry that used to exist there. Whilst there are plenty of shots that illustrate just how prevalent it was, two old back-and-white sequences stand out.
The first shows untethered construction workers scaling and dangling from the girders of a massive river bridge. High above the ground, these tiny figures, like industrious ants, are dwarfed by the huge and impressive edifice. Thousands of people, like rivets in rows, line the streets to watch the final beams attached. Such a project would be immense today, let alone over 100 years ago.
The second features two official-looking men in bowler hats and overcoats, standing on a hill and looking into the valley below. “Half a million people live there – a town of steel,” says one proudly, turning his pipe to point its stem at the vista. Cutting to a reverse shot, we now see what they see, and it’s an awesome sight: a seething mass of smoking chimney stacks, huge steelworks and tiny houses as far as the eye can see. It looks for all the world like an intricate patchwork of vehicles and buildings on a miniature film set, but yet we know it’s real. It’s moments like these that convey how integral such endeavours wee to Sheffield, and though major manufacturing may not exist in the city today, The Big Melt certainly puts flesh onto the memories of industry.
The extras are excellent, and include an interview with Cocker and Wallace, a full live performance of the score plus extra rehearsal footage, the original trailer, and a colour booklet with essays and full production notes.