Victoria Brown, Arts and Entertainment’s Co-Editor.
I should state outright before I begin this: I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of Morrissey or The Smiths. What made me want to see this film was a combination of being a fan of the actor portraying Morrissey, and a charmingly funny trailer that genuinely made me laugh out loud. One of the great things about cinema is that admiring a particular actor or director can push you beyond your own personal viewing preferences, so you experience a film that you wouldn’t otherwise consider seeing. This can be a risky venture, but in this case it was worth it. This unauthorised biopic is a wonderfully endearing film that is worth seeing.
Whether you’re a fan or not, it is difficult to imagine a world without the music of Morrissey and The Smiths. Considered one of the most influential figures of British pop, Morrissey’s music is characterised by self-deprecation, black humour, and a sense of ‘Englishness,’ which is constantly encouraged by its use of exclusively English vernacular. Morrissey himself is often characterised as a charismatic and hypnotic performer, but he also has a dark side. The anti-star has been described as simultaneously nice but nasty, and shy but narcissistic. Over the last few years, his opinions regarding politics and racial issues have caused a lot of controversy, particularly his abhorrence towards the British Monarchy. I personally find him incredibly egotistical, pretentious, and unnecessarily rude. But each to their own. It’s not uncommon for Smiths fans themselves to admit that they’re a fan of the music, not the man.
But no matter what you think of Morrissey now, it is important that when seeing this film to remember that it is about ‘Steven,’ as he was known then, becoming ‘Morrissey.’ The film almost plays out like a coming-of-age film. There is no major emphasis on The Smiths, apart from a few future lyrics scattered throughout the script, and a brief appearance by Johnny Marr who would become The Smith’s guitarist and co-songwriter. Perhaps it is easier for non-fans to see this film because they don’t specific expectations. Jack Lowden, who plays Morrissey, has explained in interviews that he wasn’t a fan before this film and in a way that freed him of the “weight of expectation” the way an “ultimate fan” would. Lowden even admits that he looks “nothing like Morrissey,” which personally helped me connect with his portrayal more because if he looked more like him I wouldn’t have been as receptive to his performance.
The film focuses on Morrissey as an introverted angst-ridden teen, frustrated with his inability to become the man he sees himself as. His journey into stardom is sparked by his friendship with punk artist Linder Sterling (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, whose chemistry with Lowden is authentic and lovely to watch) who he connects deeply with. She constantly pushes him out of his comfort zone, but not without love and care. The film has been described as a “love letter to Manchester” as its mise-en-scene and cinematography romanticises the 1970’s music scene in the city, with a nostalgic tip-of-the-hat to the cinematic style of British New Wave ‘kitchen sink realism’ films of the 1960’s (of which Morrissey is a
fan). If you’re unfamiliar with this style of filmmaking, I highly recommend watching both ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,’ and ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.’
Lowden’s performance is wonderful. Despite the fact that he doesn’t look like Morrissey, he gets his voice and quirky mannerisms spot on. We are granted one performance scene, where Morrissey briefly fronts for a band called ‘The Nosebleeds,’ and Lowden’s singing and dancing is a great portrait of the singer, right down to the way he awkwardly clutches the cuff of his shirt. The greatest thing about his performance is his ability to make Morrissey’s frustratingly arrogant opinion of himself seem both strangely adorable, and universally relatable. ‘Steven’ is constantly writing lyrics and opinions in a little notebook, believing his views to be better than anyone else’s. This is played out humorously, so the arrogance is watered down to something we can appreciate, enjoy, and even identify with.
Almost everyone as a teenager has at one point believed themselves to be destined for greater things, and that their genius is yet to be discovered. The audience can identify with Morrissey’s frustrations at being stuck in a working-class world where he doesn’t make a difference and no-one cares what he has to say. In a way, the film could have been about any creative person struggling to make their mark on the world. There is a brief exploration of the reality of Morrissey’s existential train of thought – he suffers with depression and pill addiction – which humanises the man and helps us understand the dark side of struggling creativity. That is why it is so appealing to non-fans, as we can like the character, despite what we may think of the real man.
This is director Mark Gill’s first feature film, and he should be immensely proud of it. It is a beautifully shot, charmingly amusing film, and I am very excited to see what he will create in the future.