Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Stephen Pennell ©
As the city that gave Sir Michael Balcon, Odeon cinemas and celluloid to the world, is home to The Electric, the oldest working picture house in the UK, and has a suburb called Hollywood, it’s not altogether surprising that there have been some great films and documentaries made about Birmingham music over the years. Just the other day, inspired by Richard Nevins’ brilliant retrospective on this very website, I went to YouTube and sought out Slade In Flame, a gritty yet comedic story of four no-nonsense Black Country boys on their journey from rags to riches, via a pigeon loft and some decidedly dodgy agents from That London. As you can imagine, the soundtrack is fantastic, and the rest of the film is pretty entertaining too.
Sky Arts’ Nightingales doc King Rocker, directed by Brass Eye’s Michael Cumming and narrated by Stewart Lee, the 41st best stand-up comedian of all time, was reviewed in these pages, so I’ll just post the link. Needless to say, with the level of personnel involved, both as subjects and makers, it’s just brilliant from start to finish.
A film that really encapsulates the creativity and diversity of the Birmingham music scene is Jez Collins’ Made In Birmingham - Reggae Punk Bhangra. It doesn’t have the budget of the Beeb or Sky Arts behind it, but more than makes up for that with heart, soul and lashings of fascinating archive footage, including Dexy’s Kevin Rowland speaking as leader of punk band The Killjoys, Ranking Roger and Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton espousing their love for their hometown, Vix Perks out of Fuzzbox and multiple ex-members of The Prefects and The Nightingales. An informative and thoroughly entertaining hour, and the accents are to die for.
Meanwhile, on BBC iplayer (although sadly not always available), there are a trio of brilliant documentaries on some of the biggest acts the city has ever produced. The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne is both tragic and comical, an extraordinary story well told by director Greg Johnson. First shown in 2020, it takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride from Ozzy’s childhood right up to the present day. The highlight for me is an introductory piece to camera by the heavy metal Astonian, wherein he gathers all his diabolical powers to scream into the lens… “My name’s Ozzy Osbourne and I’m the Prince of Darkness”. Unbeknown to him the camera is left running and after a few seconds on pause he looks away from the camera to ask in his gentle Brummie burr: “Was that oorroight?”
Another BBC winner is Promises and Lies: The Story of UB40, in which the tale of their rise from humble beginnings to the top of the charts is told, and what an unstoppable success story it seems. But all that is merely the precursor to a much darker narrative as the band descend into bankruptcy, betrayal and bitter recriminations after their irreparable split over mismanaged money. Director Roger Penny coaxes brutal candour from both factions as they tell their conflicting stories and by the end of it you’re still not sure who most deserves your sympathy. Ultimately a sad and unfulfilled quest for truth, but captivating viewing nonetheless.
Steve Winwood: English Soul is a more straightforward rockumentary than the previous two, tracing the career of, in my humble opinion, the greatest white soul singer who ever lived - Winwood just edges it by a semi-octave from Steve Marriott. A child prodigy wha had the musical world beating a path to his Birmingham door in the sixties, he broke through as the lead singer of the brilliant Spencer Davis Group before going on to form Traffic, short-lived supergroup Blind Faith, and enjoying huge Stateside solo success in the eighties. Paul Bernay’s film takes Winwood back to the country cottage for the first time since he holed up there with Traffic in the late sixties to ‘get their heads together’ and includes well-deserved tributes from the likes of his big brother Muff Winwood, Paul Weller and Eric Clapton. He was still touring regularly BC (before Covid) and my sources tell me he wiped the floor with Steely Dan when supporting them at the Birmingham Arena a couple of years back.
Last but by no means least is Noisey’s The Unstoppable Rise of Birmingham Rap, presented and narrated by Mike Skinner of The Streets. In this, Mike tours Kingshurst, Small Heath and Lozells to chat to leading local lights who have made an international impact, like Lady Leshurr, Jaykae, Dapz On The Map, Safone, Lotto Boyzz and MIST. I sometimes feel that there’s a perception at large that compared to when Birmingham ruled the charts in the seventies and eighties, things are a bit quiet now. That’s probably true of the mainstream, but Brum is as prominent as ever in rap, grime and RnB, as the list of recent MOBO award winners will confirm.
Happy Brummie viewing!