Color, 2013, 71m.
Directed by Martin Wallace and Jarvis Cocker
BFI (DVD) (UK R0 NTSC)
In what might be considered a cousin of sorts to From the Sea to the Land Beyond, the vaults of the British Film Institute have been raided again to provide a unique, music-driven snapshot of a region of England, in this case Sheffield and its relationship to the steel industry supporting it (and which eventually faded away). Designed to open the twentieth Sheffield Doc/Fest, The Big Melt extends the theme of steel into the musical instruments themselves, many of them metallic and one musical saw even made of steel, while the participants on the soundtrack include co-director Jarvis Cocker (born in Sheffield and front man for the brilliant band Pulp), Richard Hawley, the Forgemasters, and a host of other Sheffield-based musicians including a marching band and youth choir.
Obviously there isn't really a traditional narrative here so much as a tone poem about the parallels between the fiery forging of steel into a force of modern society and the population around it, a defiant working class whose attitudes would form some of the most influential British dramas of the '60s and early '70s. The elements used here include some startling, priceless footage, even extending to a vibrant '50s animated short ("River of Steel"). Along the way you get glimpses ranging from 1901 to the World War II era, with gaudy bursts of Technicolor footage reaching into the '60s and (briefly) '80s almost giving the feeling of an MGM musical hijacked by avant garde musicians. Anyone familiar with Cocker's work either solo or with Pulp should recognize his hand here, with the music featuring the same jagged, jittery, but compulsively catchy energy of his music elsewhere. A longtime friend of Cocker's since film school, BAFTA recipient Martin Wallace shares directing chores and gets top billing for what amounts to a virtuoso fusion of archival work and editorial prowess.
Though not billed as such, the BFI DVD of The Big Melt could be considered something of a double feature as it contains not only the original film but a complete live performance of it at The Crucible with Cocker and company, shot with the performers in front of the screen mostly shot from an austere distance. It's interesting to compare the slicker, more produced production of the main feature with the live version, which sometimes feels more intense by its very nature even though the sound mix isn't even remotely as good. Also included is a nine-minute interview with Cocker and Wallace who talk about growing up feeling like having "steel rammed down your throat," the film resources at the BFI, and the feelings they tried to evoke through the extensive editing process. Also included are three minutes of rehearsal footage (lots of brass!) and the original trailer, plus the usual extensive liner notes including an essay by Cocker (who ties this project to "the best film ever made," Kes), Wallace (who draws together the parade of ordinary faces in the film clips and the pivotal role steel played in the advances of the last century), and Jan Faull, who goes into more depth about the cinematic elements used to forge this new cinematic creation.
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Reviewed on March 11, 2014.