Director Seamus Murphy’s unorthodox music documentary records his collaboration with PJ Harvey on her 2016 album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project.’
Revered British alt-rocker Polly Jean Harvey is the elusive subject of A Dog Called Money, a mongrel mix of music documentary, war-zone travelogue and multi-media art project. A key collaborator on Harvey’s last two albums, Irish photojournalist turned director Seamus Murphy recorded the unorthodox creation of her 2016 opus The Hope Six Demolition Project from start to finish. World premiered at the Berlin film festival today, this impressionistic film is his belated record of their bold shared experiment.
Murphy’s documentary – or dogumentary, if you will – is full of arresting imagery but lacks narrative shape or journalistic rigor. While the talent and ambition behind the duo’s collaboration is hard to fault, A Dog Called Money is a freewheeling visual collage which unearths little of substance from a potentially fascinating mass of material. Harvey’s devoted global following will undoubtedly help it find an audience, but Murphy’s film is less than the sum of its parts. It has also taken a suspiciously long time from gestation to completion, losing any timely bite it might have had when its sister album was still topping charts and winning Grammy nominations.
Murphy first worked with Harvey on her hugely acclaimed 2011 album Let England Shake, taking photographs and directing short films to accompany each track. For The Hope Six Demolition Project, the duo made a strategic decision to work in tandem from the start, drawing on the same shared first-hand experiences to fashion an album with a globalized political outlook. They began with a series of exploratory missions to Kosovo, Afghanistan and the poor, mostly black neighborhoods of Washington D.C. While Murphy took photos and shot footage, Harvey recorded her impressions in a notebook, which she later drafted into poems and lyrics.
Once the songs were ready, the second part of the project involved Harvey and her band recording the album in a specially zoned-off studio space beneath Somerset House in central London, their working process visible to public spectators who observed from behind darkened one-way glass. Once again, Murphy was on hand with his camera to gather fly-on-the-wall footage from this bizarre rock-star version of The Truman Show.
Given its rich mix of source material and potential story angles, Murphy’s film is a disappointingly mundane, unrevealing affair. He edits down his globe-trotting adventures with Harvey into scrappy soundbite clips, cutting between time zones and continents with little guiding logic. Random Afghan, Kosovan and African-American characters make fleeting cameos, sometimes discussing past traumas or tragedies, then are quickly forgotten as the film zips elsewhere.
Harvey pops up in extraordinary settings – the only white face in a black church in wintry Washington, the only woman at a ritual circumcision ceremony in the sun-baked Kosovan hills – but with little or no context to make sense of these images. At times the whole experience feels dangerously close to the kind of voyeuristic tourism once derided by punk godfather Johnny Rotten as a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.
To his credit, Murphy has a keen eye for visual detail: looming children’s faces, stunning snowy valleys, the hair-trigger body language of heavily armed U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kabul. And Harvey has an easy magnetism on screen, especially in the studio clips when she shifts register from shy country girl to howling, growling, otherworldly siren. But she is also notoriously private, and Murphy never presses her into sharing even basic interview details about herself or the Hope Six project. As a result, Harvey sometimes feels like a minor character in her own documentary.
Murphy’s free-ranging choice of material is also baffling at times. Clips of Syrian protesters marching against Assad or refugees massing on the Greek/Macedonian border were clearly shot with no input from Harvey, and have scant relevance to her album. The footage of rowdy Trump supporters is particularly odd, considering the album was recorded in 2015 and released in April 2016, all before Trump formally launched his presidential campaign. There are teasing glimpses of artistic genius in A Dog Called Money, but eccentric choices and muddled intentions too. A talent as strong and singular as Harvey deserves a more probing, less indulgent film than this.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Pulse Films, Blinder Films, JW Films
Cast: Polly Jean Harvey, Mick Harvey, John Parish
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer: Seamus Murphy
Producers: Isabel Davis, Katie Holly, James Wilson, Seamus Murphy
Editor: Sebastian Gollek
Music: Polly Jean Harvey
Sales company: Autlook, Vienna