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Mogwai: If the Stars had a Sound – Raindance Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Director: Antony Crook

The Scottish cult Indie Rock band Mogwai once dissed Sir Paul McCartney. They failed to stand up for him at an awards ceremony , and nearly got into a fight with Shack. Record producer Arthur Baker had to intervene. They were young and being “bratty” he says. As far as bad behaviour goes, that seems to be it. There’s a reason why Antony Crook’s documentary If the Stars had a Sound is not more of a biopic like , say, Bohemian Rhapsody. Mogwai’s twenty-five-year career has been short on drama. The nearest the film gets to debauchery is a deputy headmaster having six beers and then asking the band to donate football strips to his school. Which they did.

Stuart Braithwaite, the band’s guitarist, remembers John Peelsaying, “I always thought you’d be one of these bands that just a couple of weirdos would like.” “That’s kind of what I always thought,” says Braithwaite. It’s now February 2021 and the band are hoping to reach No 1 for the first time in 25 years of steady, if relatively modest, success. The tense background music is just for effect – probably anyone who’s chosen to watch already knows the outcome. The film goes on to tell the story of the band’s career, interspersing blurry footage from the past with commentary from various people in the music industry as well as the artist Douglas Gordon and the writer Ian Rankin. What emerges is a portrait of serious musicians, uninfluenced by trends – as Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand puts it , they have a vision , and “the guts not to be blown away from it by the gusts of fashion.” They also seem unaffected by celebrity . We see them as nominees for the 2021 Mercury Awards , posing as awkwardly for their photo as ordinary people snapped with drinks in hand at a party.

There is a video of one of Mogwai’s first gigs, at Kapranos’s Kazoo Club in Glasgow. The teenage Braithwaite’s hair is longish and he wears a sparkly shirt while energetically bashing his guitar. In other videos they are all as wholesome looking and tidy as Mormon boys having a dress down day. Kapranos is not the only one to be surprised by the sound they create. American producer Dave Fridman recalls them being sent to his rural New York studios by the Delgados (who couldn’t make it themselves). He found them “much more organised than most bands,” but otherwise unremarkable. Then he hears them play. “That was astonishing,” he says.

Devoted fans will enjoy every fuzzy faded moment, and delight in the generous portions of music. Strangers to Mogwai may well be captivated by their eerie yet comforting, uncategorisable music. As a documentary, however, the film falls short in many ways. The title itself, apparently the words of an enthusiastic fan, could be applied to any kind of sound. Similarly, Rankin’s description of Scotland as ‘a country of binaries’ doesn’t make it different from anywhere else, and his example of Cain and Abel is especially unconvincing. Crook assumes extensive prior knowledge. An image of the young Delgados, appears, untitled, right before one of Mogwai, looking almost identical.

Speakers are named only once, although one middle-aged white man with lockdown hair looks much like another. Crook himself appears, unnamed, at the end. Perhaps intentionally, the film concentrates on the band , not the individuals, but only Braithwaite is noticeably present on screen. The others – Martin Bulloch, Dominic Aitchison and Barry Burns- are named once, and all we learn about them is provided in a couple of words from Gordon. Scenes change confusingly. A video of the band playing is followed, puzzlingly, by a crowd of Hasidic Jews conducting a ritual with a chicken. In fact it’s there to illustrate Baker’s story of how they turned a liturgical melody into a twenty-five-minute ear-worm. The film ends with what seems to be compilation of videos sent in by fans on their way to a concert. It’s interesting and moving, but not signalled. As a viewer you may need time to catch up.

Fortunately, on one important thing , the film is very clear. It warns us that ‘some scenes may have a strobing effect’. They are not kidding.

Mogwai: If the Stars Had a Sound is screening at the Raindance Film Festivalwhich runs from 19 – 28 June in London cinemas.

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