Lost in France is a documentary about the Scottish rock scene in the 1990s. Its charm lies in its tight focus: the small independent Glaswegian label, Chemikal Underground, which was founded by members of the band The Delgados and enjoyed runaway success after signing young groups such as Bis, Arab Strap and Mogwai. Opening with recent footage of a Mogwai concert, the sheer pleasure of being enveloped by the band’s trademark sound in a large theatre whets the viewer’s appetite for what’s to come.
Written and directed by Irishman Niall McCann and produced by Irish company Still Films in collaboration with Edge City Films, Lost in France is a documentary that looks to the present as much as the past. In 1997, Chemikal brought a large troupe of bands to the small town of Mauron, France for a tiny festival organised by a local promoter. The trip was messy and chaotic, taking place just as the label was taking off. In 2016, a small group of them revisited the scene, accompanied by McCann. As a result, the film is as much about their current lives, musical careers and relationships as it is about their emerging identity in 1997.
Video footage, sound recordings, photographs and newspaper clippings are interspersed with the interviews, which are casual, thoughtful and meandering, peppered with humorous exchanges and moments of sincere reflection. This double focus works well, as the original materials they have to work from are often incomplete or damaged, such was the relatively amateur-ish nature of the original event. In addition, a lot of the details have been forgotten, even to the subjects themselves. Were this a more conventionally backward-looking documentary, that might be irritating for the audience. But paired with the beautifully-shot footage of the 2016 trip – the bus rides, forest walks, convivial meals and performances – the roughness of the archival material provides a nice contrast.
The characters we meet have all come a long way in the last two decades. Although Chemikal Underground is still in business in Glasgow, the current state of the music industry has taken its toll on the business, and there is a palpable sense of lament in the conversations with boss Stewart Henderson. The figures who have come to be most recognisable are Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, and while their star status will hold a special interest for fans of either band, they are not given more attention than the others; Alex’s identity as Franz Ferdinand frontman goes unmentioned until near the end of the film. Emma Pollock and RM Hubbert are still releasing solo material with the label, while Paul Savage is a producer. The dynamic between these friends, some of whom haven’t seen each other in a long time, is the lifeblood of the film. Awkward smiles, sad glances and belly laughs are recorded with close attention. The overriding mood is one of gratitude for each other’s company, which makes for unexpectedly touching viewing.
Formally, Lost in France is quite playful. The filmmaking process isn’t hidden, but alluded to constantly. Interview outtakes and set-ups of shots are incorporated throughout, along with a number of skits and a heavy use of text on screen. While these elements add to the unique atmosphere of the film, towards the second half it starts to feel a bit waterlogged, and misses the momentum that a more conventional cut could have provided. This pacing issue is exacerbated by the sheer amount of footage of the 2016 concerts in France that is included at the end. While it certainly creates the sense of being at the gig, you can’t help thinking that the director couldn’t bear to leave anything out and has perhaps overindulged, to the film’s detriment. While this might put off a general audience, it is unlikely to bother fans of the music. For them, Lost in France is a must-see – an unusually intimate peek into the complicated dynamics of a unique, but not unusual, moment in music history.
Lost in France is on general release from 3rd March. A series of gigs around Ireland will accompany the film’s release:
Friday March 3rd – The Workman’s Club, Dublin
Saturday March 4th – Connolly’s of Leap, Cork
Sunday March 5th – Roisin Dubh, Galway