“I’m just a twat from Leytonstone,” says Damon Albarn in the documentary BANANAZ (Ceri Levy, UK, 2008), which had its world premiere last night in Panorama Dokumente. The quote is typical of the film’s filthy, silly humour, which also encompasses a giant penis and fart gags. BANANAZ is able to take such an intimate look at its subject, the animated band Gorillaz, thanks to the director’s friendship with the group. It is this quality that was missing, or felt manufactured, in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones pop promo, SHINE A LIGHT (USA/UK, 2008), which opened this year’s Berlinale.
Albarn, ex-frontman of 90s Britpop band Blur, set up Gorillaz with his friend, comic strip artist Jamie Hewlett, in 2000. They decided to draw a virtual band. Obviously, such a band could run into trouble when performing live, but the Gorillaz gang have a set-up involving playing behind an opaque screen while their cartoon character band members are streamed across it. The screen turns them into characters in their own animated film.
The movie makes use of these techniques too, as well as a grainy, vintage-looking film stock and animated interludes. Still photos are also used in a stop-start, cartoonish way, like flicking through a photo album. Levy’s use of such digital trickery adds to the sense of this being a scrapbook of the band’s origins, as idiosyncratic and visually arresting as the band’s own music videos. A narrative arc suggesting the band’s rise is perhaps obscured by the impressive imagery, but this would have made the endearingly raggedy film too slick.
The subjects are clearly at ease with Levy’s camera, and increasingly start to speak directly into it, kiss it and, at one memorable point, suggest that the director should stop filming naked (we just have to hope they’re joking). The camera doesn’t shy away from more difficult moments either, such as a raging Albarn-Hewlett argument, or a confrontation with an American schoolteacher over racially-sensitive lyrics. Albarn doesn’t come out of this incident well, and Levy is brave enough to show it. The truth, warts and all, is what documentary should aim to show, and BANANAZ isn’t afraid to dig the dirt and then expose it.