When I was a kid in upstate New York, I’d hear Petula Clark’s “Downtown” on the radio — a song about the promise of glittering lights, “movie shows,” and all the excitement and dazzle adult life had to offer — and revel in the anywhere-but-hereness of it all. That’s not to denigrate where I grew up. Almost all kids, growing up anywhere, ask themselves: What else does the world have to offer? Long before they became world-famous, the members of the Yorkshire-bred Pulp, led by precocious stringbean-in-pants Jarvis Cocker, must have asked too. And as Florian Habicht’s gingery, deeply affectionate documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets shows, even after they found out what the world had to offer — they were still OK with Sheffield.
This isn’t a film about the cozy safety of returning to your roots, but about being honest — maybe even jubilant — about how where you’re from becomes part of who you are. It’s framed by footage from the band’s final U.K. concert, in 2012: Pulp, active from roughly the late ’70s until 2002, reunited in 2011, and decided to play their farewell show in Sheffield. Looking simultaneously solemn and puckish in his horn-rimmed goggle-glasses and gently graying beard — like a child’s-book illustration of himself — Cocker explains what instigated the reunion in the first place: He felt the band left too many loose ends when it broke up, and reuniting for a time seemed like the right thing to do, even if “tidying up isn’t the greatest rock ’n’ roll motivation.”
It may not be, but who needs reasons? Habicht has made a lovely film that’s partly about Pulp and partly about Sheffield: It’s hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins. His camera captures Cocker doing ordinary Sheffield-or-anywhere stuff, like changing a tire — Cocker has recently had a dream about doing just that, he explains, and the workaday quality of his sleep time is a little alarming to him. The band’s longtime drummer, Nick Banks, coaches a Sheffield girls’ soccer team, of which Pulp are a partial sponsor — the band’s name is emblazoned on the jerseys. Banks’s daughter is on the team, and her father says that when some of her teammates asked her what, exactly, this “Pulp” might be, she referred to it as her “dad’s crap band.”
But beyond the soccer pitch, the Pulp name means something in Sheffield. Habicht meets Terry the news agent, a smiling gnome who sits in a little kiosk outside the bustling emporium Castle Market, where Cocker worked the fish counter as a teenager. (Sadly, this relic of ’60s Sheffield closed not long after the film was shot.) Asked what his favorite Pulp song might be, Terry enthusiastically endorses Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” but his fervor is genuine even so. Josephine, a sixtysomething lady with a sweep of snowy hair, has been a fan for a long time. She recalls that Blur, another band she likes, emerged in the same era, but she much prefers Pulp, whose songs have “more melody” and “better words.”
Almost everyone in Sheffield may love, or at least know, Pulp. But it hasn’t always been easy being Pulp. Keyboardist and founding member Candida Doyle, a pensive-looking blonde with a wicked sparkle about her, explains that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a young woman, which spurred her to join a rock band — despite the fact, or maybe because of it, that rock stars generally don’t have this “old person’s disease.” She speaks of having scary bouts of stage fright when the band’s fame was at its peak, and says she was apprehensive about the reunion, though she was relieved to find that she could still play all the songs.
Cocker, too, has always seemed ambivalent about the rock ’n’ roll dream, though it’s clear he loves being onstage: In his stovepipe trousers and block-heeled boots, he struts its length like a focused, brainy panther. When it comes to performance footage, Habicht (who was born in Berlin and is based in New Zealand) and Cocker (who helped conceive the idea for the film) apparently don’t believe in delayed gratification: The movie opens with a number from that Sheffield concert, the song that everybody, even those who think they’ve never heard of Pulp, knows. “Common People” is anthem and accusation rolled into one, a defiant jab at rich people, or even just reasonably well-off ones, who think it’s cool to play at being poor.
On “Common People,” Cocker’s voice begins as a papery whisper just waiting to be ignited with a match: The song goes up and out in an angry, ebullient blaze. At another point in the Sheffield show, Cocker lobs rolls of toilet paper into the audience — they leave long white comet’s tails as they unfurl. Both the singing and the slinging of bog roll are pure rock ’n’ roll acts, bold and impudent and celebratory. One is noisy and the other is quiet, and both have a place in Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets. This is a film about many things, but maybe it’s mostly about the mingled tragedy and glory of coming from where you came from.