Inside The Smiths Review
"They bridged the gap between the demise of punk rock and the beginnings of the rave culture. Their contribution to that most transient and egocentric of decades was to deal with universal themes as relevant today as they were then." Here, isn't that The Mission he's talking about? Wayne Hussey did all that and more, y'know. "You are a tower of strength...to meeeeeeeeee!"
Actually, dear reader, I'm joking. These are the very lines that Mark Standley says while walking about a cemetery in southern Manchester paying homage to The Smiths both in his words and his whereabouts. And with the great longcoat that he wears, the fashion of The Smiths, being precisely the sort of thing that indie kids tended towards when their German army surplus coat was in the wash. Unlike so very many music DVDs that I review for this site, most of which end with threats of physical violence arriving in my inbox after describing my loathing of punk, my laughing at Henry Rollins (one more than one occasion) and my getting the name of the guitarist in Europe wrong, I actually quite like The Smiths. Unfortunately, 'quite like' is not the sort of thing that really cuts it with The Smiths. Europe, maybe, but not The Smiths.
'Quite like' it is, though. By that I mean there are moments on The Smiths and Hatful Of Hollow that I like but not as many as others. Perhaps uniquely, I would nominate Meat Is Murder as their best album, whereas The Queen Is Dead, the album often described as their best, sounds, even on the best playback, as though you are listening to it through headphones. For all Johnny Marr's talk of The Kinks-meet-The MC5 of The Queen Is Dead, it sinks faster than a failing souffle - Rank offers a version of the song as it should be - while once is too much for Frankly Mr Shankly, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. As for Strangeways..., outside of a few tracks, the only pleasure it now offers is the irony in comparing Morrissey's sniping at how badly record companies treat their artists to how badly he treated Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce while they stood alongside him in The Smiths. Including, as we find out here, getting paid less for playing exactly the same gigs.
This shoddy documentary follows Joyce and Rourke as they tour the US and the UK. Or at least that's how it's billed. To you or I, they don't do very much more than visit a couple of nightclubs, bars and radio stations in both countries less impressively in the UK as they're still resident there but no more so on the other side of the Atlantic. Then again, I have a lingering suspicion that the average Smiths fan sees no romance in travel, preferring dear old Blighty and a cup of tea from a flask while parked up on the hard shoulder, so it's perhaps fitting that Joyce and Rourke, when they arrive stateside, don't actually do very much. They look at various publications, Andy Rourke wanders about in the manner of someone influenced less by Morrissey and more by Liam Gallagher and they guest DJ at a nightclub. However, given the manner in which the punters dance, it's not This Charming Man or How Soon Is Now they're playing.
Not that there's a problem in any of this. Where this documentary fails is not only in it not featuring either Morrissey or Marr but none of the music either. There is something that sounds a bit like Meat Is Murder, some tremolo effect that could pass for How Soon Is Now and some jangly pop that sounds a little like William, It Was Really Nothing but might actually be The Wedding Present. At first, this is only a little peculiar but the more it goes on, the more annoying it becomes. It is as though you're hearing bits and pieces of the originals songs as played by the worst Smiths tribute act in the world, who know what the songs sound like but no chords, melodies or words. When Mike Joyce lays his hands on a snare drum and gives us the introduction to The Queen Is Dead, it feels like a moment worth celebrating but, without permission to actually play the song, Inside The Smiths only offers those first few seconds.
Mike Joyce is good company. He was there in the beginning of The Smiths, had been a punk and knew nothing of Marr or Morrissey until he appeared at an audition. In each interview, he talks openly and, I would guess, honestly and is genuinely funny. He's also very Smiths, adding in the mundane to the glamour, such as returning to Manchester after an appearance on Top Of The Pops to play a gig at The Hacienda and phoning the woman who's now his wife, saying that if TOTP and a homecoming gig don't impress her then nothing will. Rourke is less interesting, even with his story having much more drama. Well known for having been temporarily sacked from The Smiths for drug addiction, Rourke tells his story but he does so without humour, something that he's not lacking in the outtakes but adopting an unwelcome rock-star aloofness when interviewed.
Neither, though, are helped by the structure of the film and scenes that would have been better left on the cutting room floor. A scene in which Andy Rourke holds up a ticket and announces that it's for a Morrissey gig that evening passes without further mention, which suggests the producers either lost interest in the story or didn't prompt Rourke to try for a backstage pass. Similarly, there are some dreadful shots used to fill in gaps in the documentary, such as Joyce standing in the same cemetery as Standley and reacting all too clearly to a behind-the-camera nod to do something even if something means pretending to greet an old friend who also happens to be wandering in amongst the graves. Rourke has an even less happy time of it, having to look desperate into a camera that he holds at an arm's length from himself, all in aid of suggesting misery and hitting rock bottom.
Worse comes with those chosen to be interviewed. While it's easy to take the likes of Peter Hook, Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley, the likes of Mat Osman (Suede) and the Kaiser Chiefs are a whole lot less impressive and relevant. And there's one who arrives on the screen by saying, "My name is Preston. I'm in The Ordinary Boys!" Having heard The Ordinary Boys, I'd sooner admit to a habit of wearing pants designed for twelve-year-old girls than to say I was a member of The Ordinary Boys. Better comes with the arrival of Mark E Smith, who I like a lot but who is never given carte blanche in the editing. Rather, Inside The Smiths tend to cut him off just as he's about to say something very rude about The Smiths. Given how little respect he has for Manchester bands - during Madchester, he took to describing The Fall as a Salford band - that's not very surprising but this documentary does stifle what it is he has to say.
We don't learn very much about The Smiths in this documentary. Indeed, it says rather less about The Smiths and their breakup than did Johnny Rogan in The Severed Alliance but so long as this lets him away with it, Mike Joyce talks about the good times. There isn't anything like an appreciation of how much humour, fun and laughs there is to be had in the music of The Smiths and far too often documentaries and books overlook how enjoyable it must have been to have appeared on Top Of The Pops with Morrissey hurling gladioli about the studio. Then, as now, they looked like no other band and Joyce revels in that. It's unfortunate that this documentary offers too little of that. And in only including Joyce and Rourke, two too few members of The Smiths.
Presented non-anamorphically in 1.66:1, this falls so far short of being suitable for broadcast, never mind DVD, that not even those channels with viewers in the tens would think about broadcasting it. To be fair, that's not surprising. Just as it uses K-Tel versions of Smiths songs so it gets in a K-Tel film crew who know nothing about Steadicam, who use the worst morphing effects in the history of film and who resort to every cliche in the Amateur Videographers Handbook when recording interviews with their subjects. The quality of the DVD is very poor indeed. There's obvious ghosting of images, no detail whatsoever and such softness as to have you thinking the DVD is covered with a thin smear of Vaseline. And all that came with looking at bits and pieces of it on a laptop. Watching it on a 28" CRT was dreadful. Watching it on a plasma was difficult, particularly in zooming up that non-anamorphic 4:3 to fill the height of the screen. The soundtrack is almost as bad. It has moments when it sounds fine and certainly the dialogue is, for the most part, very clean, but it's hard to forgive those songs that sound like, but are clearly not, The Smiths.
Crazy Face (1m11s): This was the name of a venue owned by Joe Moss that The Smiths practiced in before fame came calling. Standing in the doorway with Mark Standley, Mike Joyce recalls those days, particularly how he waited in the doorway with Morrissey for Marr to arrive with the keys.
Fifth Smith (9m50s): Oddly, Rank is one of the best-sounding Smiths releases. Odd, that is, because it's a live album. In touring The Queen Is Dead, Marr decided to beef up, although that's probably an unfortunate turn of phrase, the band's sound with a second guitarist. Craig Gannon, then in Aztec Camera, was brought in and on Rank, The Smiths offer the best-sounding versions of Ask, The Queen Is Dead, Bigmouth Strikes Again and Rusholme Ruffians (with a snatch of His Latest Flame) that you'll ever hear. Without a mention of him in the main documentary, this short feature interviews Gannon in that same southern Manchester cemetery about his time in The Smiths and his rather low-key exit from the band.
Smiths In A Box (36s): Mike Joyce, a cardboard box and lots of tapes of The Smiths rehearsing. No really.
Who Owns Who? (1m44s): Mike Joyce, his kitchen and two cats. Makes you long for the days of animated menus.
Tripping In The USA (4m05s): Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke and Mark Standley walking about the streets of America. And some lesbians talking about The Smiths and a man who, with the haircut that he has, couldn't be going anywhere but a Morrissey gig being asked while standing in a venue where Morrissey is playing, "So what are you doing here? Seeing Morrissey?" He's not there to see Westlife.
Ask Me One On Sport (3m54s): This features outtakes of Andy Rourke messing up his lines and showing, which I suspected while watching the documentary, that he adopts a misguided rock star persona on camera while he looks and sounds warmer and funnier off.
A Dreaded Sunny Day (30m05s): The differences between Joyce and Rourke are most apparent here. Joyce is garrulous while in conversation with Mark Standley while Rourke, sitting beside him, stares into his glass of beer not saying a word. Truth be told, this one extra was probably enough as it offers plenty of what Joyce and Rourke have to say without the kind of diversions used in the main documentary to pad it out to fifty minutes. This is a perfectly concise interview with Joyce and Rourke sat outside in the sunshine and enjoying both the good weather and the chance to give their side of the story.