Color, 1987, 85 mins. 48 secs.
Directed by Jack Bond
Starring Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe, Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor, Neil Dickson, Gareth Hunt BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
At the height of music video mania in the second half of the 1980s, several artists tried to expand their popularity by diving into feature films in one way or another. Madonna and Prince were among the most ambitious, of course, while bands like ABC dabbled in odd projects like the now-forgotten Mantrap. At the same time directors like Derek Jarman and Julien Temple were in high demand for their ability to fuse cinematic sensibilities with the music video format (and vice versa). Lost in the shuffle at the time was It Couldn't Happen Here, the first and only feature film starring Pet Shop Boys, the innovative synthpop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe who exploded on the pop music scene with their 1986 debut album, Please, and hit singles like "West End Girls" and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)." Early the following year saw the release of their second album, Actually, which spawned the monster hit "It's a Sin" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Later that year, MTV viewers familiar with that album were puzzled but delighted by the sudden appearance of a new single and video for "Always on My Mind," an infectious dance cover of the familiar standard (and a staple of all their concert tours ever since). With plans for an international tour scuttled, it turned out the boys had actually mounted a tie-in feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here, which takes its title from one of the non-single tracks from Actuallyand contains numerous songs from both albums. A surreal, plotless, and nostalgic film that essentially plays like one long music video, It Couldn't Happen Here was heavily promoted via the exclusive "Always on My Mind" song and tie-in video (which featured significant footage from the film), but it proved to be a tough sell and received very minimal theatrical play. Home video fared a bit better with VHS and laserdisc copies becoming prized collectibles among PSB fans, but the film remains something of a hidden secret in '80s British cinema.
Directed and co-written by experimental filmmaker Jack Bond (whose work with Jane Arden like Anti-Clock, The Other Side of Underneath, and Separation has been well presented by the BFI, not to mention his great PSB video for "Heart" with Ian McKellan as a lovelorn vampire), this film defies any kind of standard plot synopsis. However, it does take place around a coastal town populated by eccentrics milling near Neil and Chris including a wildly pontificating serial killer posing as a priest (A Zed and Two Noughts' Ackland), a sentient ventriloquist's dummy, and EastEnders star Barbara Windsor in multiple roles (one as Neil's mom required her to lip sync to Dusty Springfield). Essentially a musical in a sort of art house sense, it's basically a framework to hang multiple Pet Shop Boys songs including a crazily choreographed version of "Rent," an airborne rendering of "Two Divided by Zero," a stage production of "It's a Sin" by showgirl nuns, and a climactic performance of "One More Chance" in a ballroom dancing discotheque. Apart from a bizarre overuse of the title song (which gets played in its entiretly several times), the music is handled in a very interesting way with some left in their familiar arrangements and others (such as "West End Girls") augmented with some fun new wrinkles. Along the way you get some truly arresting images, most notably a montage set to "King's Cross" with a man going off to work while completely ablaze. More than a few critics took exception to the music video approach and fragmented structure (with the word "pretentious" popping up a lot), but anyone with a fondness for '80s culture, British nostalgia, or some of the best pop music around should be able to just settle back and soak up the experience.
Long out of circulation in any format, It Couldn't Happen Here looks astonishing in its new presentation from the BFI as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition, touted as a new 4K restoration. Anyone familiar with the somewhat gauzy and pallid old master from the late '80s will be shocked at how fresh and vibrant it looks here, with colors popping out splendidly. Just take a look at the "What Have I Done to Deserve This" sequence with Neil inside a blood-red phone box (which eventually leads to some real stage blood); it really pops off the screen and just looks beautiful. The LPCM 2.0 track (with optional English subtitles, some of which have some slight goofs in the song lyrics) also sounds superb and decodes nicely to replicate the original Dolby Digital Surround mix including some very enveloping rear channel effects, such as the sudden plane attack during "Two Divided by Zero" and the explosions before the final scene. A new audio commentary features Bond, art director James Dillon, and lighting cameraman Simon Archer running through the production of the film including the technical challenges of several scenes, the achieving of one memorable moment thanks to some fleet Steadicam work, the location scouting around Clacton-on-Sea, the wrangling over how many songs to get into the film, and plenty more. Don't expect any revelations about what it all means, of course, but as a production account it's priceless. In the video interview "West End Boy" (27m4s), Bond returns for a more expansive overview of his career, why he took on this feature, and the methods from his past work that came in handy here. In "It Can Happen Here" (25m35s), choreographer Arlene Phillips goes over the highlights of her long and illustrious dance career as well as the skill she had to bring to some of the film's dance sequences, which are indeed pretty impressive (and anticipate several films by Baz Luhrmann). An earlier unseen version of the film is presented in script form (under the title Actually, not surprisingly), and you also get a digital reconstruction of the theatrical trailer in HD. The familiar "Always on My Mind" music video is presented here in its entire lo-fi glory here as well along with a section of image galleries, "As It Happened," covering the final script, shot lists, lyric shots, and promotional material including various video releases and marketing odds and ends. Though it sold out quickly, a limited edition was also released featuring deluxe packaging and a booklet.