"There is steel here, both of the physical and more metaphorical kind."

"It can stir up a lot of memories," says Sheffield-born musician Jarvis Cocker talking about tribute to steel manufacture The Big Melt. He's not wrong, within moments of the first sight of a smelting plant in the film, I recalled a school trip in my teens to Scunthorpe Steelworks in the Eighties where in the intense heat, we were shown the process in action, simultaneously dangerous, violent, awe-inspiring and magical.

Cocker's film - collated from BFI archive material with collaborator filmmaker Martin Wallace - manages to capture these warring elements of steel making and, more importantly, to put a human face on the hard graft that went into metal manufacture. Using footage from a wealth of films stretching from Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon's Workforce At Steel And Garland Priory Foundry Workshop (watch it here) in 1900 to Jenny Woodley's Women Of Steel in 1984, Wallace, accompanied by music arranged by Cocker, captures the essence of the industry and gives an idea of the way that steel stretches into every corner of our lives.

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There is a sense of the searing heat of the foundry, reinforced by industrial scoring, but also of the grace and beauty of the finished product, exemplified by 1928 footage showing the construction of the new Tyne Bridge in Newcastle (watch that here), with workmen pirouetting on cranes as they move girders into place. Women are also well represented, from those who worked in the machine plants, tooling smaller steel items with precision, to a "munitionette" making gun shells in a plant in 1917, somehow seeming thoroughly modern, despite the passing of the years.

Animation is also put to good use, with the inclusion of 1951's River Of Steel - featuring animation by Roobarb legend Bob Godfrey - which presents an easy to understand guide to the process as well as a comic look at "a world without steel". Cocker's eclectic score mixes local brass bands with music from Kes and Carl Orff, keeping an emphasis on metal, with a beautiful segment involving the use of a musical saw, played by David Coulter, particularly apt. That the soundtrack was recorded live in Sheffield's Crucible during Doc/Fest also lends it a fittingly gritty edge.

This is less an all-out celebration of the industry than a recognition of the sweat and effort that went into it, with scenes in working men's clubs as notable for how tired and worn out everyone looks in the days when smoking was commonplace and false teeth a luxury as it is for the smiles some of those captured present to the camera. There is also plenty of opportunity to see the landscape left scarred and muddy by extraction of the ore and the pall of smog that settled across the chimney-filled landscapes of Britain's industrial heartlands during the industry's boom years. A slyly subversive element is also at work, from a man's hand travelling up a pair of grass-stained tights to the V-sign one of the workers flicks at the camera in some footage from 1901.

There is steel here, both of the physical and more metaphorical kind and a sense of a workforce and a community who, no matter how much they might be beaten or reshaped, will always remain strong.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2014
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The Big Melt packshot
Celebration of the steel industry.
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Director: Jarvis Cocker, Martin Wallace

Year: 2013

Runtime: 71 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: United Kingdom


Doc/Fest 2013

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