Superstar in Waiting: Paul Kelly on Lawrence of Belgravia

Jamie Dunn | 28 Nov 2011

The music world is a cruel place and talented artists often slip through the pop chart cracks. Paul Kelly has made a film about one such artist: Lawrence, former frontman of Felt and Denim. The Skinny spoke with Kelly ahead of the Scottish premiere

Ever since D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark documentary Don't Look Back, where the sardonic backstage antics of a young Bob Dylan proved as entertaining as his electric onstage performances, filmmakers have attempted to capture the sights, the sounds and the smells of rock & roll on film. Some of these rockumentaries show their subjects at the height of their powers, like Jonathan Demme’s collaboration with Talking Heads on Stop Making Sense, or Martin Scorsese’s grand staging of The Band’s farewell performance in The Last Waltz (which gets a welcome re-release in December courtesy of Park Circus). Equally compelling, however, can be the stories of the also-rans, with more recent rock documentaries like Dig! and The Devil and Daniel Johnston giving fascinating insights into the genius of artists too fragile for the fame game.

Lawrence of Belgravia, the new film from Paul Kelly (Take Three Girls), documents the life of a similarly gifted singer/songwriter whose potential remains unfulfilled. With a fine line in catchy melodies and witty lyrics, Lawrence, the ring leader of 80s cult band Felt, and later 90s outfit Denim, should have been as celebrated as his fellow single-monikered contemporary Morrissey, but his overground-underground arty-pop sound was never embraced by the mainstream. Kelly’s film sees the eccentric frontman still struggling to find an audience, now with new group Go-Kart Mozart (the world’s first self-styled B-side band with an upcoming record that Lawrence describes as “the poppiest pop album you ever heard – ever”), and facing eviction from his London council flat because of unpaid rent.

Ahead of the film’s Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre on 4 Dec, Kelly tells The Skinny about the project, which was eight years in the making.

Why did you want to make a film about Lawrence?
I've known Lawrence since the mid 80s although it was only when I began helping him with some artwork in the early 2000s that I really got to know him well. Around the same time I began working on a film with [alternative English dance group] Saint Etienne called Finisterre for which we were interviewing people who had moved to London and I thought he could be good. He was very entertaining and I began to see that he would make a great subject for a film in his own right. He would drop by my studio and people would later ask "Who was that guy? He's fucking mad!"

You filmed Lawrence off and on for about eight years – why did the film take so long to make?
There was never any funding for the film and it wasn't really the kind of idea I could imagine pitching to the BBC so it was always going to have to fit around other projects. Lawrence also began having some pretty serious housing issues which meant he was living in hostels or on various people's sofas and so unless he called me I would lose track of him for months on end. Over that eight year period I must have given up making the film about five times in all. Whenever he re-appeared I would say "What happened, where have you been?" and he would just act as though he'd only been gone for a day or so even though it was usually months.

Did your director/subject relationship with Lawrence change over the years?
Lawrence is, by his own admission, a control freak (we both are!) but we somehow came to an agreement fairly early on, whereby he wouldn't see any rushes and although he could veto certain ideas, he would only get to see the finished film at its premiere. By 2008 I had put together a 20 minute trailer which I did show him and amazingly he didn't request any changes. He seemed quite surprised, saying, "It actually looks like a proper film!" I wasn't quite sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. After that we began to relax the arrangement as I was keen to encourage him and show how various sequences were working. But this quickly led to problems as he wasn't happy if I pulled certain sections he liked out of the film. I have some great letters and notes that Lawrence sent to me during the course of the film, offering up various suggestions on how I should structure the film, but on the whole he has a very good understanding of how these things work and his knowledge of modern cinema is far better than mine. I did feel as though we were getting a bit too close at times and that just led to rows. At one point towards the end I even had my girlfriend acting as a go-between. 

Your film seems to be more about Lawrence’s present, rather than Lawrence’s history. It seems you didn’t want to go down the nostalgic "weren’t the 80s and 90s great" route of the likes of Upside Down: The Creation Records Story?
There isn't really a great deal of Felt or Denim film archive about and the idea of making a conventional rock-doc didn't seem right for someone like Lawrence. I wanted to make something different. There's a documentary directed by Richard Olivier called Transit Ostend made when Marvin Gaye was living in Belgium of all places. It's fascinating to see him in such an alien environment and was made during Gaye's 'wilderness years' just before his comeback hit Sexual Healing. I had that film very much in mind when making this one. It feels to me as though Lawrence is somehow living in limbo, just on the verge of being discovered by the public at large. A kind of superstar in waiting who walks the streets unnoticed. 

Talking of Creation Records, in an article in the Guardian, Alan McGee called Lawrence "a deadpan pop star who failed, and relished the failure.” Do you agree with this statement, and if so, why do you think he relishes failure?
I'm not sure that's strictly true although I have myself questioned whether he really wants to move beyond his cult status. One thing about Lawrence is that he'll always surprise you and he never does what you expect. He is a very complex character and it's easy to judge him by one's own values. It also depends how you measure success or failure. I would say he created some of the best British records ever made and if he had to do that at the expense of his own mental and physical well being, surely that makes him a true artist. That's a quality usually admired in figures from the past but maybe we just tend to measure things too much from a financial perspective these days. I know he would have loved to have been on Top Of The Pops and really does crave chart success but I don't think he would be happy to compromise his music in order to get there, but then maybe I'm wrong.

McGee also calls him “Britain's best undiscovered pop superstar.” Are you hoping that your film will give Lawrence the recognition he deserves?
I would agree with that and I think Alan has done a lot to help him over the years. He allowed Lawrence to make some wonderful records on his own terms. I think it was probably very frustrating for McGee at times, but all credit to him, he seems to have generally given Lawrence a great deal of artistic freedom.

I really hope the film does bring him wider recognition because whether you like his music or not, he's a fascinating character and there aren't too many of those left making records these days.

Has Lawrence told you what he thinks of the film? If so, what are his thoughts?
I sat next to him at the premiere, which was the first time he had seen the finished film. He seemed to be able to watch it as though it was about someone else! He laughed at the jokes and I could see he was quite moved by the more difficult moments, almost as though he didn't already know the story. I think he genuinely loves it and that's quite something because it's a pretty revealing film.

Lawrence of Belgravia screens in a double bill with Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story at the Glasgow Film Theatre, 4 Dec, 6.30pm. Tickets: £9 The screening will be introduced by director Paul Kelly. After the films, Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian will host a Q&A with Lawrence and Paul Kelly. A Glasgow Music and Film Festival and Monorail Film Club event. http://www.glasgowfilm.org/theatre/whats_on/3258_lawrence_of_belgravia_take_three_girls_the_dolly_mixture_story