Anyone Can Play Guitar 2009 ★★★★

Anyone Can Play Guitar (ACPG) is a music documentary examining the history of the tightly knit Oxford music scene. The film tells this story through a mix of talking head interviews with band members, and the promoters, managers, and writers who popularized the scene and created a localized ecosystem of venues, magazines and record labels that allowed it to thrive. Some of these bands reached international fame (Radiohead, Supergrass, Foals), some never made it out of the local scene, and some were members of The Candyskins.

A three year labor of love on the part of filmmaker Jon Spira (a former video and comic store owner, and sometime stand-up comedian, music video director, and screenwriter) the film has been financed independently with $30,000 in online donations raised through the indiegogo.com site. However far from a ramshackle student film project, the final product is an illuminating, often funny, and surprisingly moving account of dreams pursued, sometimes realized, sometimes dashed in the name of rock’n’roll.

Rockdocs are ten-a-penny of course, it’s an established documentary genre with long roots going back to D. A. Pennebaker’s Dylan film DON’T LOOK BACK IN (1967), and now encompasses everything from scores of cheap unauthorised band docs that fill up shelf space in HMV to high budget 3D IMAX concert films. What makes ACPG feel genuinely fresh however, is that rather than tie its flag to the mast of an established music genre (hey kids! It’s the history of punk rock, again, and again, and again) it is focused on a geographical scene, and one that is generally not recognized as a “branded” scene by anyone geographically outside of it. This is largely because the Oxford scene is not tied to one specific genre of music. While it’s fair to say that the bands covered in ACPG all sits comfortably under the umbrella of indie rock, they are a diverse group ranging from the C86 proto riot grrl indie jangle of Talulah Gosh, through definitive “shoegaze” stars Ride, cheeky indie rockers Supergrass, math-rock popularisers Foals, and world conquering alt-rock behemoths Radiohead. While this means that there is no one sound or look to identify an Oxford band, it also means the scene did not wither as music fads passed by.
Narrated by indie loving stand up Stewart Lee, the documentary really scores in the diversity of its interview subjects. Spira has managed to gather insightful and in-depth interviews from Ed O’Brien and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, Gaz Coombes of Supergrass, Yannis Philippakis of Foals, as well as members of Swervedriver, Talulah Gosh, Unbelievable Truth, and The Candyskins, as well as a host of other bands that will likely be unfamiliar to anyone outside of Oxford. Spira is rigorously democratic; giving lesser known bands as much coverage as the big names, and is careful to keep the focus on Oxford and the scene. It would have been easy, and probably far more lucrative to make this the Radiohead story set against the background of Oxford, but ACPG refuses to play that game. Don’t get me wrong, there is meat here for Radiohead fans, and fascinating material on the early genesis (carefully chosen word that) on the band, but this is not a Radiohead documentary.

A highlight of the film is the way that the story of The Candyskins forms a narrative spine. The Candyskins were an indie rock group who had some limited success in the pre-Britpop period, but whose career is dogged at every turn by poor decisions and bad luck. Their story heartbreakingly evokes The League of Gentleman’s Les McQueen, it truly can be a “shit business”.

For more information in the film, and updates on its progress, visit the website www.acpgthemovie.com/

1 Comment

  • Thanks for this review — I hadn't heard of this documentary, but it's the kind of thing I love so was an instant addition to my watchlist (and added the trailer to the film page). The geographical aspect reminds me of something I recall seeing (or perhaps hearing?) about the music of Detroit over the years, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was now.

Please to comment.