(as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival)
Steve Read, Rob Alexander / UK / 2016 / 85 mins
It is ridiculous that Gary Numan was once the most mocked man in music. Music aside, Android in La-la Land shows the synth-rocker to be a thoroughly decent bloke, and, oddly for a man who’s spent much of his career making like he isn’t, full of very human warmth.
Yet that mockery took its toll on an unassuming young lad from an ordinary, loving home. Numan became so famous, he’d be mobbed on holidays in countries where he didn’t even know he had records out, and then equally abruptly, became a whipping boy for the music press. ‘His Mum and Dad should have been doctored,’ one hack kindly opined. Numan himself eloquently describes his experience of fame as grabbing hold of express train as it flies past, then inevitably losing grip and ending up broken on the tracks. Much of this documentary focuses on the process of piecing his career back together, culminating in a valedictory new album.
Key to that rebuilding process is wife Gemma, who plays almost as big a role as the man himself. Originally a mega-fan, she lived the dream and bagged her hero. Charmingly, they appear here as genuine soul mates, with nothing of the rock star-groupie dynamic about them. Indeed, self-professedly “riddled with issues” and diagnosed with Asperger’s, Numan confesses, ‘if I wasn’t in a band, I’d never have had a girlfriend.’ ‘Gemma fixed so many things…’
We meet his young daughters, his parents, his small inner circle of musical collaborators. Team Numan is close knit, and although midway through this, he and his family uproot to a huge mock castle in California, he remains remarkably ordinary and unshowbizzy. His deep shyness explains his obsession with tech, and does nothing but endear him to an audience.
The engaging emotional fare means the music takes a backseat, perhaps wisely. Numan is cult, an acquired taste, and it’s noticeable how quickly we skip from Cars and Are Friends Electric? (his main claims to wider public fame) through to new album, Splinter. The documentary’s latter stages play like an extended ad for said album, complete with flashed-up pull quotes. It’s understandable – make hay while the sun shines – but overplayed. Numan’s triumph here is a human, not a musical one. Whatever your interest or disinterest in his work, this is a fascinating study of the man.