Films about bands and artists are vanity projects in and of themselves. That said, they can be great ways for fans to see “behind the curtain” when a favorite performer gets big enough to the point where it becomes simply unreasonable to expect them to get out after a show and meet every fan. At the same time, tour films, behind-the-scenes documentaries, album promotional films all tend to carry the same sort of intent which is to give us, the “civilians”, a look at what life is like for the bands we love (or may not love, for that matter).
One of the central themes we hear band after band, especially those who have engaged in monstrously lengthy touring schedules, talk about is that disconnect they experience from everyday life. Things that are considered normal like having your own home, doing your own laundry, having a circle of friends doing likewise, so on and so forth, just aren’t a part of the touring band’s schema. But in documentary films like this, the director is given the task of making the audience understand that these are people who came from somewhere to be where they are. This simple thematic nuance is at the core of the character studies that most of these band films become.
In Get Better, the new documentary film about Frank Turner, we get all of these things told in an unflinching way through Ben Morse’s compassionate but revealing lens. That Turner signed off on the content is a statement in and of itself on top of the things he mentions within the film. As Morse said when we spoke with him, Frank was “easy to work with. Suspiciously so. He gave me total control over everything which made it my job to decide where to draw the line on certain issues, which was itself a hardship of a kind. But in terms of Frank, he kept his distance and let me say whatever I wanted to say.” This honesty and earnest nature are essential to Turner in his music and is, arguably, the most important thing to his fans. The dilemma about the pull between the person that Turner is versus the popular persona that he’s cultivated as a performer is the crux of what Morse captures here.
A delightful section of the film, without revealing too many spoilers, involves Turner playing an unconventional gig in Naples. As Morse says, “right after we’ve spent 20 minutes of the film calling him a dirtbag and fallible, (there’s) this sweet moment where he goes back to the community he’s created and moves the whole room.” Where some documentaries might aim to carry on the “Golden God” mythos or be another art vehicle for a band known for such, Get Better operates in a way emblematic of its subject matter giving honest takes on the person much more than the music which some might see as a weakness of the film.
That said, the passages that do handle the music part of the equation are done particularly well. Interviews with Butch Walker and studio footage from Nashville are examples worth highlighting here concerning the formation of the album. As Morse says about that sequence, “Frank talked about wanting to build songs in a studio, and when I saw him in the booth, I knew immediately I wanted to visually show the song being put together in his head from bare bones. So we layered each instrument, with cuts to the band and their personalities and contributions, and all the time you’re on him – it’s a super intense performance (and is the take on the record, I believe) – and right at the end… “OK, let’s do one more”. Which to me, is everything about his attitude to work.”
The album’s release, delayed as it would become, also is a central theme here. After all, if you normally spend upwards of 250 days a year on the road, what do you do when you’re told to cool your heels until release resulting in months of waiting around? It’s almost as if the film accidentally walked in on an experiment of what happens when you take an object insistent on constant motion and force that object to sit still. Will said object spin itself out in place and grind itself into the ground, thereby being destroyed, or will it adapt?
This placement in time is part of what makes the film compelling and interesting. It is an uncommon music film precisely because it neither fully documents the making of an album nor a tour instead focusing on telling people a little more about who Frank Turner is right now. An artist steadily gaining in popularity instead of launching into the stratosphere – deftly articulated by drummer, Nigel Powell, in one sequence – is where we find Turner here. At some point, once Frank is done with this chapter in his life, it will be interesting to look back on this entry as perhaps a portrait of an artist on his way to even greater things or fuck all.
One of the sneakier delights in the film are the comments from the Sleeping Souls, Turner’s venerable bandmates. It’s important that we make that delineation as well. The Souls; Ben Lloyd, Matt Nasir, Tarrant Anderson, and Powell, are Turner’s bandmates, not simply his “backing band” or a collection of hired guns. That said, as they point out in the film, they know who “the boss” is – as opposed to “The Boss” who everyone else in the world knows as some guy from New Jersey. Their participation here helps humanize Turner while also reminding the audience who runs the show. It’s the tender moments, if we can use such for dudes in bands running around the world, where they let slip their concerns for their “boss” but also their friend that make this film something remarkable.
Those concerns hang like a cloud over the film. That it begins with Turner commenting about a rough year it might wind up surprising some who only know him from his opening slot on the London Olympics or relative hit songs such as “Recovery”, “The Way I Tend to Be” (both from previous effort Tape Deck Heart), “Get Better”, or “The Next Storm”. However, anyone whose paid closer attention to Turner’s lyrics over the years knows that while he is a lively, warm, and honest performer, you couldn’t necessarily accuse him of writing wholly happy songs. It’s always seemed, in some way or another, to be about overcoming and getting on with it. This film doesn’t change any of that but it does bring a new intimacy to knowing the man behind the songs and I suppose that’s the goal of a film doc, innit?
That Butch Walker, Billy Bragg, Beans On Toast, his band, a couple friends, and assorted appear throughout the film to attest to their versions of Frank proves useful, informative, and downright enjoyable, if somewhat uncomfortable, when many of them begin sharing their concern over the blackhole that their friend and associate seems to fall into over the course of this period is further testament to Morse letting others tell their story of Turner. But the guest star who absolutely, 1000% steals the film is his mum. Really, a lovely woman discussing her son and what cold-hearted bastard can’t at least be supportive of that?
For a narrative that talks a lot about loneliness and the disconnect of touring musicians, the film winds up exposing us to a Turner perhaps forgotten to time now as his career has advanced. As the energy and reasonable ability to meet every fan after every show has faded somewhat, this film illustrates, as Frank puts it “the difference between me and the brand.” It’s that difference and the gap that’s grown between man and Artiste that gets the most exploration here for good reason. Turner’s career is ever evolving and Morse’s camera expertly captures the man in a brief period at rest.
In the end, Morse was charged with putting together his film largely unfettered by his subject even if he had concerns at times to ask him if maybe this or that part should be in there. “I wasn’t ever interested in glamourising excess although according to some people, that’s the only reason to watch music docs. I wanted to do a character study, so was far more into the “why” of it – which had to come from him.” This study is brilliantly, if subtly, executed. That Turner let it exist and be its own entity speaks volumes about how much he trusted the filmmaker. “At the end of the day, he could have very easily pulled the film or heavily edited it. I didn’t – those (the more uncomfortable) segments are there because that’s a part of who he is. Frank prides himself on being honest – I would have been doing both him and the project a disservice had I ignored it all, so I hope that I got the balance right.” I think it’s safe to say that Morse did get this film right and it will be interesting to see how it holds up over time like other music documentaries such as D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan film, Don’t Look Back, or Peter Care’s R.E.M. pic, Road Movie.
Get Better releases on DVD June 30, 2017 and can be pre-ordered here.