Eye For Film >> Movies >> Spike Island (2012) Film Review
Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall
Placing a coming of age drama, or any drama for that matter, against the backdrop of a particular music scene is a well played trick in British and American cinema, and was used to successful effect in films like the Manchester-set 24 Hour Party People, which many might now hold up as the holy grail of how to put the 'Madchester effect' on screen in a winning way. Spike Island, from Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll director Mat Whitecross and screenwriter Chris Coghill, likewise tries to exploit the Manchester music scene as the canvas to paint a simple story on, this time narrowing the focus to just one week and one band - in this case, The Stone Roses and their Spike Island Mersey Estuary gig in 1990. On that island, opposite a cement factory, The Stone Roses held a huge outdoor gig for 27,000 people, helping move themselves and the Manchester scene directly into the media spotlight.
Getting to this gig is the mission of Spike Island's main characters, a fast-talking, foul-mouthed, fag-guzzling and headmaster-worrying group of teen whippersnappers from the red brick row houses of Manchester, who together have formed their own indie band with the pretentious name of “Shadowcaster”.
‘Tits’, (Elliott Tittensor) is the default leader of the gang seemingly by dint of being the most decisive (and best looking), though his home life is troubled given the declining health of his cancer-stricken father. Dodge (Nico Mirallegro) is the lead guitarist in Shadowcaster and Tits's best friend. Dodge is also, as we learn, the one who is the real brains behind the band's songwriting and a dedicated musician who takes it all much more seriously than the others - for all except Dodge the band is probably more like a useful outlet for their frustrations and hormones. Making up the numbers are Zippy (Jordan Murphy) and Little Gaz (Adam Long).
After a brief introduction section where we see them getting up to no good defacing various bits of their school and professing their love for the Stone Roses, the plot kicks off proper as the Stone Roses gig nears (the days marked by animated timers that blend into various parts of the backgrounds, aping a music video), and the tension rises as it becomes clear the gang are going to have to wing it when it comes to getting access. Setting off to the gig in a rickety van without tickets when their tout fails to deliver, they are, unbeknownst to them, also on a coming of age trip that will see the tensions in the band exposed, particularly between Dodge and Tits who both have eyes on the pretty local girl Sally (Emilia Clarke).
What should be the core strength is actually one of the film's main weaknesses. The narrative feels contrived and the proceedings bolted onto a major pop culture event – which is perhaps the real selling point that the studio hopes will get bums on seats - rather than an organic entity able to stand this film up on its own as an interesting self contained story of youth and growing up. As for the trappings of Manchester baggy culture in the 1990s, whilst their depictions here might ring true to those who were there at the time (this reviewer must hold his hands up and admit to being London-based and too young at the time to know who the Stone Roses really were in 1990) it all feels a little thickly laid on, to the point of cliché (such as scenes with characters on screen screaming 'MADCHESTER' in a “Wahey the lads” fashion), and any attempt at social realism (such as brief stabs at showing the boys' troubled home lives) is undermined by outlandish comic scenarios and shifts into the music video aesthetic. Speaking of cliché, the plot doesn't manage to avoid it when it comes to the coming of age tale that is supposed to be at the heart of the film, with the growing split between Dodge and Tits entirely predictable.
The film is not totally without merit: Whitecross has a fair crack at capturing the wild exuberance of a group of friends who feel that, even if only a brief moment, together with the music they can make anything happen, and refreshingly the script doesn't sugarcoat the boys - they are nicely foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed with seemingly only the Stone Roses cutting through those preoccupations. Viewers who have a few crazy gig stories from yesteryear will probably smile and nod their heads at a few of the beats in the last third of the film as the boys try to blag their way into the festival site. It's hard not to feel some real heart went into the making of this film. The cast attack their thinly-drawn roles with energy, with some wobbly attempts at the accents, but ultimately their trip to Spike Island doesn't have enough surprises or laughs, even if it has the music.Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2012